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Far from healing Iraqi divisions, this trial has deepened them

London Sunday Times | November 5, 2006
Bronwen Maddox

THIS is victor’s justice. There is a tiny chance that it will calm Iraq’s turmoil, but much more likely, it will have the opposite effect.

The verdict is no surprise. One hundred per cent of Iraqis anticipated it; 80 per cent with a sense of vindication, 20 per cent with fury.

The only doubt yesterday was whether the court would consider that the Dujail case was sufficiently strong to warrant the death penalty, or whether it would wait for one of the later charges, where the chain of command from Saddam Hussein to the killings might be more firmly established. But it didn’t.

For more than a year, this court has looked like an exercise in vengeance of the Shia majority in Iraq, brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussein. The court and its succession of judges have been overwhelmed by violence, threats, and the sectarian rifts within the country’s politics, to the point where it became impossible to see it as a contribution to the political health of the country.

There were high hopes at first that it might help to heal Iraq’s rifts, but it is hard to see now that it will do anything but deepen them.

The initial aim behind holding the trial in Iraq, under an Iraqi legal system, was clear and, at first, defensible. The United States wanted the trial to advertise the ability of the new Iraqi administration to run the country, under a nationwide legal system. It did not want the trial to seem American in the eyes of Iraqis, a possible consequence had it been removed to an international court.

The capture of Saddam was, at the time, seen as a “turning point” in the country’s recovery after the years of dictatorship. The US hoped that the spectacle of a fair trial would help to unite the country, reassuring even those Sunnis who had prospered under Saddam that the new Iraq would embrace the rule of law.

That seems a distant dream, improbable (as many US officials acknowledged) even at the time, and now bitterly farcical. More than two years of sectarian killings have created an unbridgable rift between Sunni and Shia; even in Saddam’s time, it was more blurred.

The procedures of the trial came under fierce criticism from the start. Judges struggled to keep control; Saddam was often able to dominate proceedings. Rules for introducing evidence and witnesses appeared to change.

Human Rights Watch, the human rights lobby group, has argued that this inexperienced court would have had more access to advisers from other quarters — for example, the European Union — if Iraq had not held on to the death penalty as a punishment.

But it is worth remembering that it was Paul Bremer, the much-criticised US administrator who took over the running of the country in the immediate aftermath of the war, who scrapped the death penalty, fearing sectarian persecution; Iraqi administrations reinstated it.

Sonya Sceats, of Chatham House, the think-tank, argues that “although this trial was beset by irregularities, it was not the complete train wreck that many critics predicted. In between the dramatic exchanges that made headlines across the world, a proper criminal case was made.”

Witnesses did appear, despite threats against them, and delivered hours of testimony, even if some of it was no more than rumour and personal venom. Saddam did keep a defence team together, despite targeted killings of his lawyers.

The greater problem, as Sceats and many others argue, lay in the failure of the court to maintain its independence.

The chief trial judge resigned earlier this year citing unbearable political interference. Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, and a Shia, who has done little to rein in Shia militias pursuing Sunnis, was confidently predicting a guilty verdict weeks ago. Now that the verdict has been delivered — and if it is upheld on appeal — what will it do for Iraq’s stability? If it has any benefit at all, it will be because it will remove for ever the dreams of some Sunnis that, one day, Saddam might come back and restore them to their dominance of the country.

As the turmoil in Iraq has deepened, that Sunni dream has got stronger, however far-fetched it might seem outside the country. While the one man who recently managed to suppress the country’s feuding was still alive, the possibility remained, they hoped, that he would return.

But it seems more likely that the verdict will fuel the sectarian rift: by confirming to Sunnis, as they see it, that they cannot rely on the new Government for justice; and by encouraging militant Shia groups to persecute Sunnis, knowing that their supremacy is now unchallenged.

It is not surprising that the failings of the trial reflect the deep weaknesses and prejudices of the new Iraqi Government. The verdict is no surprise, but the way in which it was reached is likely to be yet more cause for division rather than, as originally hoped, a cause for reconciliation.


“It’s a good day for the Iraqi people”

Tony Snow, White House spokesman

“He is facing the punishment he deserves”

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Prime Minister

“I welcome that Saddam Hussein and the other defendants have faced justice and have been held to account for their crimes . . . Appalling crimes were committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is right that those accused of such crimes against the Iraqi people should face Iraqi justice”

Margaret Beckett, Foreign Secretary

“We congratulate the Iraqi courts on reaching a verdict in such difficult circumstances, and the bravery shown by judges and witnesses in the face of severe violence and intimidation. It is important that Saddam Hussein faces justice for his crimes, for the sake of both his many victims and of the future of Iraq and its people”

William Hague, Shadow Foreign Secretary

“The EU opposes capital punishment in all cases and under all circumstances and it should not be carried out in this case either”

A statement by the Finnish Government, which holds the EU presidency

“What I have suffered during the war will never be compensated, even if he is hanged 100 times”

Ali Farhoudi, 38, a veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war

“Things were difficult under Saddam, we understand why. But now what is their excuse? Why can’t we have electricity? Security? Why can’t we have proper schools for our children?”

Abu Yasser, 30, in Mosul

“Every individual has a right to a fair trial, even people accused of crimes of the magnitude that Saddam Hussein faced, and this has not been a fair trial”

Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International

“Closing the book on Saddam and his regime is an opportunity to unite and build a better future”

Zalmay Khalilzad, US Ambassador to Iraq

“This is a mockery of justice and a judgment that comes from a sham and illegal court created by the US occupation that cannot provide a fair trial”

Bushra al-Khalil, lawyer in Saddam’s defence team

“Although Saddam and his allies carried out those crimes, it should not be forgotten that Saddam’s Western supporters also paved the way for him to carry out those oppressive acts and crimes”

Mohammad Ali Hosseini, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman

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