Closing arguments in the trial of Saddam Hussein began yesterday,
with prosecutors demanding the death penalty for the ex-dictator and
two of his co-defendants. While observers say the trial has failed to
meet international standards of fairness, there is no actual doubt
about Saddam’s guilt of crimes against humanity. Nor is there any
reason at present to think the US-backed Iraqi government will have any
reluctance about putting him to death.
A few commentators, in Crikey and elsewhere, have remarked on the
oddness of George W Bush’s claim earlier this month that Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi had been “brought to justice”. Saddam’s impending fate comes
with at least the trappings of justice that the Zarqawi assassination
lacked. But both amount to killing in cold blood; if you are absolutely
opposed to capital punishment, you have to condemn both execution and
Yet it seems to me that such absolutism cannot be justified. Tim Luckhurst, writing in The Times (extracted in today’s Australian),
argues that “If the death penalty is wrong in Britain then it is wrong
in Iraq.” But I find that unconvincing; Iraq is not a stable,
law-governed country where one can rely on civilian courts and prisons.
If something like civil war is threatened (or actually in progress),
surely the immediate danger can sometimes justify the deliberate
removal of an individual culprit.
The real question about the death penalty for Saddam is a practical
one: would it do more harm than good? In contrast to Zarqawi, Saddam’s
relation to the insurgency seems tenuous at best. The likelihood is
that he would be much more useful to the insurgents as a dead martyr
than a living inspiration (or embarrassment). By showing him the mercy
that he denied his victims, Iraq could send an important message, and
perhaps do something to help stop the cycle of violence.