The Lynching of Saddam

5 November 2006

The Lynching of Saddam Hussein

By Gwynne Dyer

Occasionally, like any doomed man, Saddam Hussein played with the notion of a last-minute reprieve. “He’s told us many times that we won’t be able to [avoid a death sentence in his trial],” said Khalil al-Dulaimi, one of his lawyers, in June. “He knows that the sentence has been issued from Washington.” But at that point he was still indulging in the fantasy that this was part of an American plan to restore him to power. “He’ll be the last resort; they’ll have to knock on his door,” said Dulaimi. “The United States will use this sentence to pressure Saddam to save it from this mess.”

By July, however, Saddam seems to have accepted the fact that he was going to be killed, for he asked the court that he be shot by a firing squad, as is the right of a military man, and not hanged like a common criminal. More fantasy, since Saddam never served as a regular soldier.

On Sunday, the sentence of death by hanging was pronounced on Saddam and two of his fellow defendants. He responded with a clearly rehearsed tirade — “Long live Iraq! Long live the Iraqi people! Down with the traitors!” — and then left the courtroom with a little smile playing on his face, as if he had won. Which he had, within the narrow confines of what remains possible for him.

Unless the second trial that is now underway on other charges takes priority (which is not yet clear), it will take only ten to twenty days for an appeal to be considered by a panel of nine judges, and then the death sentence must be carried out within thirty days. But Saddam still wins, because in the eyes of most Sunni Arabs in Iraq, and of many elsewhere, he dies a martyr to the cause of Arab nationalism. His sons are dead, his country is in ruins, and he will die at the end of a rope — but he defied the West and he kept his dignity, so he dies a hero.

He is not a hero, and Iraq would be a better place if he had never been born. In any properly constituted international court, he would have been found guilty of the same charges he faced in Iraq. But in an international court there would have been due process of law, and the Iraqi government could not have replaced judges who wanted to respect the rights of the defendants, and the defence lawyers would not have been murdered, and as a result the trial would have had some credibility. The trial in Iraq did not.

There was one obvious reason why the United States did not want Saddam to face the same kind of impartial international tribunal that tried Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic and will soon try Charles Taylor of Liberia. Such a tribunal would have the right to see documents and hear testimony that would reveal the extent of US complicity in Saddam’s crimes in the earlier phase of his career, when the Reagan administration was supporting Iraq in the 1980-88 war against Iran. Hence the kangaroo court in Baghdad, and all the grotesqueries that ensued.

The first chief judge, Rizgar Amin, resigned last January after government complaints that he had failed to impose order in his court (i.e. had allowed Saddam to speak in his own defence too often). Five weeks later his successor, Sayeed al-Hammashi, was removed when it was discovered that he had been a Baath Party member. And the chief judge appointed to run the second trial, Abdullah al-Amiri, was removed in September for being too sympathetic to Saddam.

Meanwhile, Saddam’s defence lawyers died like flies. The first to go, Saadoun Janabi, was “arrested” last year by men claiming to be from the Shia-controlled Interior Ministry police and later found dead in Sadr City, the Shia stronghold in Baghdad. The second, Adel al-Zubeidi, was shot shortly afterwards, whereupon another fled the country. And the chief defence lawyer, Khamis al-Obaidi, was abducted in June. He, too, was arrested by men in police uniforms, and his body was found, with both arms broken and eight bullet wounds, dumped in the same place in Sadr City.

After Obeidi’s murder Saddam’s lawyers withdrew from the trial entirely, demanding that it be transferred outside Iraq, and Saddam himself went on hunger strike. He gave that up after sixteen days of being force-fed by tubes pushed up his nostrils, and sat through the remainder of his trials with no legal representation other than a court-appointed lawyer who refused to be filmed or photographed, spoke through a microphone that deliberately distorted his voice, and was rejected as “an enemy of the people” by Saddam.

Saddam has not had a fair trial, although that, too, would certainly have found him guilty. He is the victim of a state-sponsored lynching, and so, for many people, he will die a martyr. That will make little difference in Iraq, where people have more immediate things to worry about, but it certainly does not help the cause of international law.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“There was…ensued”)