Monday, November 20, 2006

Saddam's flawed trial

Human Rights Watch today released it's report of the trial of Saddam, concluding that it "was marred by so many procedural and substantive flaws that the verdict is unsound." Unfortunately I have to agree with them.

A year ago, when I was working in Baghdad with the UN, I was approached by one of the lawyers in Saddam's defence team who was an acquaintance. He explained some of the problems they were having communicating with the Special Tribunal, for example when they sent letters and submissions they would sometimes hear nothing for weeks and then be told that the letters had not been received. This made it very difficult for them to prepare their defence adequately. The lawyer asked me whether, as I was living inside the Green Zone with easy access to those involved with the tribunal (indeed many of those involved were my neighbours in the Rasheed Hotel) and in the US embassy, I might play the role of a go between. He wanted me to give their letters directly to the relevant people so there could be no denying receipt.

I was willing to play this role, not because I support Saddam in any way (In 2001 I lived for 6 months with a refugee who had been torturer by the regime and I am fully convinced that Saddam has a great deal of blood on his hands) but because I want Iraqis to have a fair legal system that they can trust. If the most prominent trial in Iraqi history is seen to be unfair then what hope will an ordinary Iraqi have of fair treatment by the courts? In the end I didn't get involved because my UN colleagues did not want me to do so (even in a private capacity) as a result of understandable political sensitivities. Instead I refered the lawyer to the UN's human rights team, who were already involved in monitoring the proceedings of the trial.

As a Christian, I oppose the death penalty on principle. However there are other reasons why I think it would be a bad idea to execute Saddam. Firstly it would deny the thousands of other victims of his rule to have their cases heard. Secondly it could be an excuse for additional violence and it could risk turning the old tyrant into a martyr. Thirdly it would mean that Saddam himself would get off too lightly, worse for him to live on a few more decades with his power stripped away and his crimes made visible to the world; Saddam could die today with the reasonable belief that Iraq has gone down hill without him at the helm, but - inshallah - if he lives a few years perhaps he will see a peaceful, prosperous and democratic country to which his three decades of rule is but a gruesome historical footnote.