More on the Saddam verdict

OK. This post from Billmon is pretty damn funny. And it nails the absurdity of the whole situation.

Baghdad, Nov. 5 (Whiskey Bar News Service) Legal experts expressed shock and surprise this morning as an Iraqi court dominated by the country’s newly empowered Shi’a majority condemned former president Saddam Hussein to death for crimes against humanity.

“This has to be one of the most unexpected verdicts to come down the pike since the O.J. trial,” said one anonymous legal expert, who asked that his name not be used because he wished to remain anonymous. “I thought after Saddam’s third attorney was murdered by the Shi’a death squads that the former dictator might be in some trouble, but I never expected a conviction on all counts. I mean, they didn’t even check to see if the glove actually fit!”

It’s funny ’cause it’s true.

Guilty, guilty, guilty

Just before 11 p.m. Beirut time (GMT +0200), Saddam Hussein was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

“Long live the people, down with the traitors, down with the conquerers!” shouted Saddam Hussein after the verdict was read. “Damn you and your court.”

Right this moment, Baghdad is under an uneasy and indefinite curfew. I just spoke with my old TIME colleagues who are there, and they reported a lot of violence around them. However, CNN is reporting only sporadic, celebratory gunfire. The two bureaus are in different parts of Baghdad, however, so they may both be right.

Anyway, yippee. I guess we can all agree the invasion, the destruction, the looting, the thousands of Americans slain, the tens of thousands wounded, and the possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, the destruction of the Iraqi state, the collapse of Iraqi society were all worth it.

Well, if the GOP maintains its edge in Congress, I’m sure someone in Washington will think it was worth it. (I’m looking at you, Karl Rove.) But they may be the only ones on the planet.

Did anyone really think this would come out any other way? I covered this trial for a bit before I quit the Mesopotamian charnel house, neé Iraq, in March and the Americans have stage-managed this trial from the get-go. The trial is considered a joke in Iraq and around the region. No one took it seriously. And now, Saddam Hussein, a man who no doubt deserves harsh punishment for his crimes, will be brought to American-brokered justice. I can not emphasize enough how many Iraqis will see this as either revenge by Saddam’s enemies and an unjust, preordained outcome (most Sunnis), or a process that took too long and could have been avoided if the bastard had just been strung up when the Americans caught him in December 2003 (pretty much everyone else in Iraq.)

Not much room in there for a celebration of the Iraq’s shiny new rule of law.

And now, two days before the American midterm elections, Saddam gets the death sentence. Already celebratory gunfire is echoing across Baghdad, but soon after, Iraq will likely be an orgy of violence and blood as insurgents and supporters of Saddam respond. Will the verdict be worth the deaths from that violence, too?

So, to review: Americans invade Iraq, destroy the government, catch a butcher and put him in a show trial that was already marked by interference and showboating by all sides, and then watch gleefully as he’s sentenced to death two days before the political party that started this fiasco face almost certain defeat.

Several questions: For Iraqis, the question now is what happens in the appeal process. An automatic appeal starts 10 days from today, and will likely take a couple of months. Then, 30 days after the end of the appeal process, Saddam will die by hanging. (I don’t expect his appeal to be successful.)

For Americans, there needs to be some soul-searching, starting with the question I asked above: Was this verdict, as satisfying as it may be to some, worth the disaster that is Iraq? Are Americans still willing to send their sons and daughters there to keep Iraqis from each others’ throats for a few months more?

For the White House, they’re now anxiously watching the voters, asking the question, Do Americans still feel Saddam was a enough of a threat to reward the GOP now for getting this verdict? Will it rally the GOP faithful? Possibly. The whole GOTV thing, for me, is the big variable in this election. I just don’t know what will or won’t motivate GOP and Democratic voters to get out there.

That said, I think I know what they’re telling themselves in the West Wing, but I suspect (naïvely hope?) that most voters kind of figured what the verdict would be and have already factored that into their political choices. This electorally-timed verdict will do little to change their minds. Nor will it do anything to change the dynamic on the ground in Iraq. In fact, look for the violence to get worse in the next few day as Sunni insurgents weigh in with their opinion on the verdict and Shi’ite death squads respond.

Response to “The World on Trial”

Reader Elyn F wasn’t able to post this to the comments, but I thought it an interesting enough response to yesterday’s “The World on Trial” that I offered to post it for her in the hopes of generating discussion.

Reader Elyn F wasn’t able to post this to the comments, but I thought it an interesting enough response to yesterday’s The World on Trial that I offered to post it for her in the hopes of generating discussion.

Dear Chris,
I’ve been a fan of your writing & blog for a over a year now & generally agree with your assessments of the situations, but I have to disagree with the concept of an “International Tribunal” for Saddam.
The creation of an international trial (before that I believe the standing policy was ‘to the victor went the spoils … & the head of his enemy if the conquerer so chose’), came about at Nuremberg, with the trial of leading Nazis. This was a fair & just decision (though they did leave the Italian leadership out of it, which was slightly odd), as the Nazi’s waged war, invaded, tortured & killed on a multi-national scale &, therefore, had to answer to an international community.
In current times the use of the International Court at the Hague hasn’t proven itself reliable, timely, or effective. Just look at the details of the fiasco known as the (ongoing) trial of Slobadan Milosovitch & his cohorts (that they’ve found).
But, even if the IC or any other type of International Tribune could be stood up & prove itself functional, I still think that this is the wrong approach, for the simple reason that this is an Iraqi dictator, who stole from, terrorized, tortured & massacred Iraqi’s, and must answer to … the Iraqi people.
As the Iraqi’s struggle to come together, however tenuously, as a nation rather then a collection of tribes & religious sects; attempt to navigate their new-found freedoms to vote, write constitutions, stand up an army, come together to make decisions (whether we in the US like these decisions or not); &, most impressively, begin to detain & evict the the foreign Jihadi’s in their midst (& from what I’ve read, they may have rounded up more actual foreign Jihadi’s in 1 day out in the Sunni tribal area then we grabbed in 3+ years), so that they the Iraqi people can guide their country in a direction that they, themselves want (again whether we in the US like it or not); taking away their right to judge a person who did the country & the people so much (almost unimaginable) pain & damage would take them back psychologically 3+ years to the people swarming around the Green Zone looking for handouts from Bremer’s brigades of nation-builders, rather then giving them what any people deserve — respect in their abilities &, therefore, responsibility to take care of themselves.
I truly believe in the ‘you broke it, you fix it’ concept, & we certainly ‘broke it’ in terms of Iraq. So if we want to withdraw our troops & whatever of a coalition-we-have-left’s troops, we can only do so after we’ve given the Iraqi people, not just a functional army, police force, & get their services up & running again but, perhaps more importantly, help them find a backbone (that had been beaten away for decades under Saddam’s dictatorship) & a psychological belief that they, the Iraqi people, CAN & WILL be able to come together & make this new Saddam-free Iraq work. By placing them, yet again, in the role of subservience by claiming only “we” (the west) can judge a man who did so much wrong to them, simply turns them back to spineless subjects & all we’ve done is substituted the International (&, lets admit it, everyone saying that means US & Western/Central Europe) community for Saddam, to make decisions, help them out & send them rules, regs & control. On the other hand, allowing the Iraqi people to take the responsibility to hold these trials themselves — no matter how many flubs, mix-ups & incidents (that would cause a mistrial in the US) occur in court — is to set them on the psychological road to self-determination & a new sense of empowerment &, hopefully, national & personal dignity.

So there you go. Discuss.

The World on Trial

In public, and even in private, U.S. officials express no concern over the direction the Saddam Hussein trial is taking, or its perceived lack of legitimacy. With many Iraqis — including some in the lame-duck government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari — openly saying just hang the bastard already and international observers calling into question the fairness of the procedings, the U.S. is looking increasingly alone as it continues to insist on the need and fairness for the trial. But for once in Iraq, the U.S. is right.

BAGHDAD — Sorry for the delay in the filing yesterday. After we went into the press gallery for the trial, I was kind of cut off from the computer except for the pool reports which had to take precedence. And then, returning from the courthouse to the Baghdad Convention Center was an ordeal … not to mention the nighttime dash through the city traffic. Anyway, by the time I got back home, I was neck deep in new files, and I had to put the blog on hold. *Sigh* Serving multiple masters is difficult.
Anyway, by now, the accounts of the the last two days are “on the wires.”: The trial is descending into dark comedy. While yesterday we had three of the defendants — Ali Dayih Ali, Mohammad Azzawi Ali and Abdullah al-Roweed, all local Ba’ath officials from Dujayl — in the dock, today there were _no_ defendants present. Saddam, Barzan al-Tikriti (former head of the _mukhabarat_) and Taha al-Ramadan (former Iraqi vice president) refused to attend and the others were prevented from attending “”Because they caused chaos and noise outside the courtroom, the court has decided to keep them away,” chief judge Raouf Abdel Rahman said.
What does _that_ mean? So far, there’s been explanation. The trial has been recessed until Feb. 13, however. Which is just as well. No war crimes trial can have even the patina of legitimacy if essentially it’s _in absentia._ Ironically, that’s one of the complaints the defense has against Judge Rahman: He was twice tried _in absentia_ by Saddam’s regime for anti-government actions over the 1988 massacre in Halabja and he might have biases against the lead defendant! Only in Iraq can such naked irony be completely ignored with a straight face.
In public, and even in private, U.S. officials express no concern over the direction the trial is taking or its increasing perceived lack of legitimacy. With many Iraqis — including some in the lame-duck government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari — openly saying just hang the bastard already and international observers calling into question the fairness of the procedings, the U.S. is looking increasingly alone as it continues to insist on the need and fairness for the trial. But for once in Iraq, the U.S. is right.
Allow me to explain: It’s not right to say the trial is fair; it’s not transparent and the tribunal’s legality is murky, considering the illegal origins of the war that brought the current government to power. On the one hand, Iraq is a fixture of U.S. policy. Because of the breathtaking incompetence of the post-war planning, the U.S. — and the world — will be saddled with the issue of Iraq for a long time to come. Because of this very big immovable and unchangeable fact, the debate over whether the war is legal _in the context of proposing and carrying out U.S. foreign policy_ is moot: the world is stuck with “the Iraq problem.”
But in terms of setting up a tribunal and establishing a legal precedent for trying heads of state for alleged war crimes, the legality of the war is very much an issue. Precedent matters in the realm of law, and the institutional structures built by an occupation and its progeny had better be well-constructed indeed.
However, and this is a big “however,”: Saddam absolutely must be tried. He must be tried, judged and sentenced. He was — and likely still is — a horrible man, responsible for the deaths of thousands. If he committed the acts he’s accused of, he deserves the punishment meted out, and whether he was America’s bestest buddy in the region during the 1980s is beside the point. (Remember, he also bought a lot of weapons from the Soviets, sold oil to the Chinese and had the full support of European governments as a bulwark against Iranian expansionism at the same time.)
Which is why he must be tried in an international tribunal. There are two reasons for this, one of them practical. The practical one first: The Iraqis are not really in a position to provide a fair trial. The security situation has led to multiple deaths among the defense team and Saddam’s crimes are too widespread not to affect almost everyone in the country, especially one with such strong tribal ties. A wrong done to a man here is a wrong done to his entire family and community. Because of this, the trial should be moved outside the country and handed over to an international tribunal.
Second, it is precisely that he was supported — or at least not roundly condemned — by so many in the West and around the world that an international tribunal is necessary. Saddam must pay for his crimes, yes, but the governments who supported him in his terror should know that they’re on trial, too. An international tribunal will do that, at least symbolically. And while they won’t suffer the same penalty as Saddam — you can’t hang entire governments very easily — their citizens have a right to know what their governments at least tacitly endorsed in the name of “national interest.” And the vast majority of the people living in democracies must own up to the fact that they didn’t care enough to find out what their governments were up to regarding Saddam.
In an ideal world, governments are those of laws, not of men. In the real world, however, governments are staffed by men (and women) who saw Saddam as less evil than the Ayatollah Khomeini. They exchanged the ideals of freedom and respect for human rights for cheap oil. They sold out the Iraqi people who paid the price.
Big deal? Welcome to realpolitik? Yeah, I know. But if we’re ever to avoid more Iraqs, we have to begin to realize that support for evil in the name of national interest often gets us into wars 20 years down the road. It also gets a lot of people killed. And frankly, why are Iraqi lives worth less than American lives? Why should Iraqis have to suffer under Saddam or endure watching their friends shredded by car bomb blast so that Americans can feel safe from Khomeini or from terrorists? Why should Saudi Arabians suffer a corrupt monarchy so we can enjoy SUVs, for that matter?
Saddam deserves to hang for his crimes, but as citizens of democracies, we are culpable, in part, for what our governments did to help him commit them. And an international trial outside Iraq would be a step in forcing us to facce up to our own transgressions against the ideals enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the U.N. Charter and the International Declaration of Human Rights. It might also be a step toward owning up to our collective trespasses against the Iraqi people. We owe it to them… and to ourselves.

Covering Saddam

BAGHDAD — I will be part of the print pool for today’s session of Saddam Hussein’s trial, so I’ll be busy doing that until late tonight. I will post my report as soon as I can.
UPDATE 10:54 A.M.: We’re still waiting to go into the courtroom, but some background: Today will be the 10th session of the Iraqi High Tribunal, and the ninth meeting in the courthouse. The press room is a round chamber dominated by an expansively chandeliered ceiling and marble floor tiles. The effect is spolied, however, by the cheap desks and IBM ThinkPads the Americans have set up for our use. But at least the Internet works, eh?
Security is rather unreal. We’re not allowed to bring in our own notebooks, cellphones, wallets or anything with metal on it. We can bring in our own pens, however. We were screened multiple times before allowed to even think about getting near the courthouse.
Normal court hours are supposed to be 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., but I’m told the court has only started on time once. Usually, it runs late.
For now, we’re all just waiting for game time.
UPDATE 11:38 A.M.: The trial has been delayed because of “procedural issue,” according to a source here in the courthouse. While the source said he didn’t know what the problem is, but it’s likely talks between the judges and the defense lawyers and what they’re going to do following their walkout on Sunday.
UPDATE 12:02 P.M.: The court has entered a closed session that could last up to 30 minutes. Presumably we’ll find out what the problem when Head Judge Raouf Abdel Rahman calls the court back into a regular session. This is the fourth special session of the court with the first dealing with the absence of Saddam, the second with the exposure of an anoymous witness and the third with purported “secret” information from defendant Barzan Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half-brother and the former head of the Iraqi _mukhabarat._ After Barzan’s alleged bombshell — bizarrely rumored to be that he was offered the presidency of Iraq — the court recessed for a month.
UPDATE 1:17 P.M.: Well, we’re still waiting. We just had lunch, however, so that was nice.