By Ghada Karmi, a research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (THE GUARDIAN, 02/01/07):
The spectacle of Saddam Hussein’s execution, shown in pornographic detail to the whole world, was deeply shocking to those of us who respect propriety and human dignity. The vengeful Shia mob that was allowed to taunt the man’s last moments, and the vicious executioners who released the trapdoor while he was saying his prayers, turned this scene of so-called Iraqi justice into a public lynching. One does not have to be any kind of Saddam sympathiser to be horrified that he should have been executed – and, so obscenely, on the dawn of Islam’s holy feast of Eid al-Adha, which flagrantly defies religious practice and was an affront to the Islamic world.
What was the executioners’ hurry? Why was Saddam condemned for one of his lesser crimes, ignoring the far larger ones for which many of his victims had sought retribution? In their unseemly haste to kill him, the judges ended up looking mean-minded, bloodthirsty and vengeful, while Saddam retained a dignity to the end that drew the reluctant admiration of many of his enemies.
It was always clear that Saddam’s fate was sealed from the moment US forces “got ‘im”, in Paul Bremer’s tasteless phrase. He was to be used as a trophy of a mindless and catastrophic war, to redeem America’s dented image. But it was also essential to stop him revealing secrets about the west’s past enthusiasm in supporting and arming his regime. Hence he was tried on the relatively minor charge of killing 148 people in the village of Dujail, after a plot to assassinate him. Far better to put him away safely for that rather than risk his exposing western hypocrisy, treachery and double-dealing.
For the Arab world, this has been a shameful, humiliating event that underlines its total surrender to western diktat. The execution was carried out under the auspices of a foreign occupying power, and with a clear western message: we give ourselves the right to invade a sovereign Arab state and remove its leader because he offends us; we think you Arabs are incapable of sorting out your own affairs in accordance with our interests, so we will do it for you.
Saddam was held in US custody right up to the end and only handed over to the Iraqis for the distasteful deed, his body whisked away immediately afterwards by a US helicopter for a hasty burial. Yet this was billed as an independent decision of a “sovereign state”, as if any such thing were possible under occupation. The fact that this was the act of an Iraqi government dominated by Saddam’s Shia enemies made the final outcome a foregone conclusion. Yet the Arab states stood by, swallowing their humiliation in silence and letting US/Iraqi “justice” take its course, hoping no one would notice how some of them had supported Saddam’s war on Iran in the 80s, fought to a large extent on their behalf.
But the west should also be ashamed of what was a clear miscarriage of justice, carried out in the face of its strident demands of the Arabs for democracy and the rule of law. The trial judgment was not finished when sentence was pronounced. Saddam’s defence lawyers were given less than two weeks to file their appeals against a 300-page court decision. Important evidence was not disclosed to them during the trial, and Saddam was prevented from questioning witnesses testifying against him. Several of his lawyers were threatened or actually assassinated, and the trial was subjected to continuous political interference.
Any pretence that this was an exercise of due process is farcical. Of course Saddam himself was a brutal tyrant, but the kangaroo court that tried him lacked any serious legal credibility. Yet no western leader (or Arab one for that matter) was prepared to say so, or exert any pressure to have the defendant tried by an international court. Whatever else Saddam was, he was the constitutionally recognised Iraqi president. Yet he was left to the mercies of a campaign of revenge masquerading as legal process.
Britain, which does not support the death penalty, did not strive hard to prevent it. No western leader has been treated in this way, and Arabs should ask themselves why this exception was made. Was it because there is one rule for them, and another for western “civilised” people?
For everyone concerned, this was a lost opportunity: for the Arabs, to have protested against this western humiliation and regained some dignity; for the Islamic world, to speak out against a sacrilegious act; and for Britain and America, to have made up, however belatedly, for their arrogance and aggression against an Arab nation that had never harmed them. Most of all, it was a chance for the “new” Iraq to have shown that it would not conform to the western stereotype that led to the country being invaded in the first place – of an unruly, despotic people who thrive on bloodshed and revenge.