How Many Deaths Can a Dictator Die?

The trial of Saddam Hussein was above all supposed to prepare the ground for a national reconciliation. Yet exactly this has not happened, says Peter Philipp in his commentary

Saddam Hussein in the court room duriing his trial (photo: AP)
For Saddam Hussein, this was only the first trial - several more are scheduled to follow

​​Many Shiites and many Kurds in the Tigris and Euphrates valley have long known that the trial of Saddam Hussein had to end with the death penalty. It was not without good reason that both groups insisted on reinstating the death penalty, which the Americans had initially abolished. But how many deaths can a dictator die to atone for the crimes he has been found guilty of?

This was only the first of several trials in which Saddam was to be sentenced. This trial focused on the murder of 148 Shiites in Dujail. A second trial – dealing with the murder of several thousand Kurds during the "Anfal campaign" in the 1980s is underway, and more are scheduled to follow.

The bloody crushing of the Shiite uprising has not yet been dealt with, nor the background of the war against Iran and Kuwait, not to mention the persecution and murder of domestic political opponents.

But what exactly does the death sentence for the ex-dictator that was pronounced last Sunday mean? Will the sentence be carried out or will the other trials first be brought to a conclusion? These are questions that must first remain unanswered, although Minister President Nouri Maliki hastened to declare that Saddam would most likely be executed before the end of this year.

Concern for the rule of law

The head of the Iraqi government may be baffled by the reactions of other countries who have criticized the verdict. However, he and other Iraqi authorities would do well to take a look at these objections. They are not an expression of pity or even sympathy for the ex-dictator, but reflect widespread concern for the future of the rule of law in Iraq.

Apart from the fact that Europeans unanimously reject the death penalty – most of the critics agree that this trial has been pursued too boldly and singlemindedly in order to achieve one goal alone: the conviction and execution of Saddam Hussein.

Premature verdicts pronounced by politicians, political pressure on the tribunal, and inadequate protection of lawyers and witnesses are only a few examples of why the EU, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have problems with the trial.

Also uncertain is what the verdict means for the security situation in Iraq. One could say: How much worse can it get? But the vague threat uttered by Saddam's defenders that a death sentence will "open the gates to hell" still resonates.

No truth and reconciliation mission

Now that the sentence had been pronounced we can – and should – stop and think about what such a trial means. A spontaneous answer is not clear: Washington and the Iraqi government want to show with the trial that Iraq is a state founded on the rule of law and that it is capable of dealing with the crimes of the Saddam regime.

No victor's justice as in the Nuremberg Trials, no International Criminal Tribunal as in the case of the former Yugoslavia. And no referral to the International Criminal Court. But also no Truth and Reconciliation Commission as in South Africa.

The trial was first and foremost supposed to prepare the grounds for a national reconciliation, but exactly this is not happening. On the contrary, the supporters of Saddam are now escalating the conflict. At least for the time being.

For they must see more clearly than ever before that the period of their supremacy is over. They will regard Saddam as a martyr who until the very end could disseminate around the world his absurd arguments from the courtroom.

After the verdict one can't help thinking a dangerous thought: That it would probably have been better if Saddam had not been caught alive. Then perhaps people would talk about him as little today as they do about his sons. Saddam would already be history.

A dangerous thought, because it contradicts every concept of the rule of law. But the course of everyday life proves every day that Iraq is far removed from a constitutional state. And the verdict in Saddam's trial will not bring the country closer to this ideal.

Peter Philipp


Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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