Convicted in a show trial that certainly appeared to have been timed to finish on the eve of last month's U.S. elections, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has now been hanged in a show execution that certainly seems to have been timed to be carried out before the end of the worst year of the Iraq War.
Hussein was a bad player. There was every reason to believe that he deserved to be held to account. But even bad players deserve fair trials, honest judgments and justly-applied punishments. The former dictator got none of these.
According to Human Rights Watch, which has a long an honorable history of documenting and challenging the abuses of Hussein's former government, the execution early on Saturday morning followed "a deeply flawed trial" and "marks a significant step away from respect for human rights and the rule of law in Iraq."
"The test of a government's commitment to human rights is measured by the way it treats its worst offenders," says Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "History will judge these actions harshly."
For 15 years, Human Rights Watch had demanded that Hussein be brought to justice for what the group has rightly described as "massive human rights violations." But, the group argues that Hussein was not brought to justice.
He was not even tried for some of his most well-documented acts of brutality. And the trial that did take place was, according to Human Rights Watch, fundamentally flawed. A 97-page report by Human Rights Watch, issued late last month, details the severe problems with the trial of Hussein. The report, based on close monitoring of the prosecution of the former president, found that:
• "(The) Iraqi High Tribunal was undermined from the outset by Iraqi government actions that threatened the independence and perceived impartiality of the court."
• The Iraqi administrators, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers lacked sufficient training and expertise "to fairly and effectively try crimes of this magnitude."
• The government did not protect defense lawyers -- three of whom were killed during the trial -- or key witnesses.
• "(There were) serious flaws in the trial, including failures to disclose key evidence to the defense, violations of the defendants' right to question prosecution witnesses, and the presiding judge's demonstrations of bias."
• "Hussein's defense lawyers had 30 days to file an appeal from the November 5 verdict. However, the trial judgment was only made available to them on November 22, leaving just two weeks to respond."
The report did not study the appeals process, But the speed with which the tribunal's verdict and sentence were confirmed suggests that the Iraqi Appeals Chamber failed to seriously consider the legal arguments advanced by Hussein's able -- if violently harassed -- legal team.
"It defies imagination that the Appeals Chamber could have thoroughly reviewed the 300-page judgment and the defense's written arguments in less than three weeks' time," said Dicker. "The appeals process appears even more flawed than the trial."
There will, of course, be those who counter criticism of the process by pointing out that Saddam Hussein did not give the victims of his cruel dictates fair trials or just sentences. That is certainly true.
But such statements represent a stinging indictment of the new Iraqi government and its judiciary. With all the support of the United States government, with massive resources and access to the best legal advice in the world, with all the lessons of the past, Iraq has a legal system that delivers no better justice than that of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.
This is the ugly legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq: An awful mess of a country that cannot even get the trial and punishment of deposed dictator right, a justice system that schedules the taking of life for political and propaganda purposes, a thuggishly brutal state that executes according to whim rather than legal standard.
According to Britain's Telegraph newspaper, "There was no comment from the White House, which was determined that the execution should appear to be an Iraqi event." But the reality of the central role played by the Americans in the travesty of justice was not lost on the Telegraph, however, as the newspaper reported that: "the transfer of Saddam from American to Iraqi custody meant his death was imminent."
Now that the killing has been carried out, the governments of Iraq and the United States have confirmed a few more of the worst fears of this war's critics. The lawlessness of Saddam Hussein has been replaced by the calculated lawlessness of a new regime.
John Nichols covered the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, and has reported extensively from the Middle East. He is the Nation's Washington correspondent.
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