Saddam execution won't bring closure

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 January, 2007, 12:00am

The trial and execution of Saddam Hussein were supposed to bring justice to a tyrant and to his countless victims and their families. After a deeply flawed trial, a rush to the gallows and a hanging that was more like a sectarian mob lynching, whether justice was truly achieved remains open to question.

Hussein stood accused of a catalogue of serious human-rights abuses including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In the end, he paid with his life for the reprisal killings of 148 men and boys of a northern town where an attempt had been made on his life.

Justice for past crimes in Iraq is important to the process of reconciliation and nation building. The victims and their families deserve it. Bringing the perpetrators to account for their crimes also helps build respect for the rule of law.

Fair or not, the trial and execution of Hussein for one atrocity were never going to achieve all of these ends. As it turns out, not only are most of the victims of the Hussein regime and their families left without closure, but the shameful execution scenes have made the tasks of reconciliation and nation building harder than they already were.

Two videos were broadcast around the world. The first, the official version showing Hussein on the gallows immediately before the hanging, had no sound and ends before the execution. The second, unofficial version does have sound, which quickly distracts the viewer from the chilling banality of a hooded hangman routinely going about an assignment he knows so well. The unauthorised mobile-phone video recording shows Hussein, standing on the gallows with the noose around his neck, being abused and taunted from among the 25 Shiite officials and guards present in the execution chamber until the moment he dropped through the trapdoor to his death.

The first version left the viewer with unsettling images of the state's ultimate sanction against the individual - the legal taking of his or her life. The second sounded more like a tribal revenge killing than the culmination of a constitutional process of justice. This has understandably outraged Hussein's Sunni Arab loyalists in Iraq and caused worldwide concern, especially in the Middle East.

The flaws and political interference in Hussein's trial destroyed hopes that a scrupulously fair hearing could undo some of the damage inflicted by his rule. For a start, it could have set a precedent for the rule of law. Even a more dignified execution would never remedy the flaws.

The Americans are entitled to be dismayed at the refusal of the Iraqis to delay the hanging while constitutional and legal questions were resolved. If Hussein's sectarian enemies had taken more time to think over Iraq's future they might have commuted his sentence and left him to rot in jail after answering for the rest of his crimes, in the hope that sparing him would unite the country.