What Saddam’s Botched Execution Means

News Abroad

Mr. Goda is the author of Tales from Spandau: Nazi Criminals and the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

As most western commentators have pointed out, we needn’t feel badly for Saddam Hussein.  The taunts that he endured in the moments before his hanging on December 30 were nothing compared with the terror he inflicted on thousands upon thousands of his countrymen and his neighbors over the course of his brutal twenty-four year rule.  But the vengeful haste by the Shi’ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malaki to execute the former dictator has robbed the Iraqi Supreme Tribunal of whatever legitimacy it might have had with Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds and with the world at large.  The fact that the hanging was deliberately rushed before Saddam could answer for other, far larger crimes than the massacre of 143 Shi’ites at Dujail (such as the Anfal campaign which murdered 180,000 Kurds); that the execution was timed to coincide with a Sunni holiday; that it was accented with a series of taunts from the witness gallery; that the trap door of the gallows was opened in the middle of the condemned’s final prayer; that the spectacle was captured by cell-phone cameras in the gallery and then distributed worldwide (thus becoming a barbaric public execution); and that Saddam’s body was then turned over for a tempestuous martyr’s burial near his home town of Tikrit, all suggest that Iraq’s government was far too immature politically to carry out the vital task of disposing with the country's former dictator. 

The problem was not, as is being argued in European capitals, the death penalty as such.  A life sentence would have turned Saddam into a political prisoner of sorts for as long as he lived in captivity.  As the case of Adolf Hitler’s Deputy Rudolf Hess shows, the world does not need political prisoners who are also bona fide war criminals, since the popular memory of their guilt fades in proportion to the length of their sentence. The problem is rather the ineptness of the al-Malaki government and its American protectors in managing the denouement of Saddam’s trial.  The trials of major historical figures, though legal exercises, are primarily political acts.  As such they must be properly choreographed since the difficulties in grasping their vast legal and historical scope means that for most, the trial often comes down to a few dramatic moments or poignant images. The Trial of the Major War Criminals in 1945-1946 has been remembered by the famous photos of the leading Nazis in the dock and by the famous ethical joust between US Prosecutor Robert Jackson and Hermann Göring. Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961 has been symbolized for the past four decades by the defendant facing his accusers from a bullet-proof booth, personifying what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”

These sorts of images survive in the public consciousness despite the fact that no war crimes trial is without its flaws. And they survive because the governments that have sponsored such trials generally have not botched the executions afterwards, thus adding images of naked, brutal vindictiveness to already identifiable legal problems. The Four Powers in 1946, for instance, understood that though the Nuremberg trial itself was more important than the executions that followed, the latter could not help but color the former if done poorly. Before the judges pronounced sentence the American, British, French and Soviet military governors of Germany determined that the executions would take place two weeks after sentencing.  If the interval did not allow judicial appeals (these were prohibited before the trial), it at least allowed the drafting of clemency petitions. In the meantime, US Deputy Military Governor Lucius Clay rejected numerous requests from world news outlets such as Time and Life, who wanted to bring professional photographers and additional lighting to the execution chamber so that photos and films of the hangings could be displayed in their magazines and on newsreels. A single military photographer took pictures of the bodies after hanging to prove that the condemned were indeed dead.  The negatives were destroyed, the bodies were cremated (ironically at Dachau), and the ashes were quietly dumped into a tributary of the Danube so that there would be no shrines to the condemned. In 1962, Israelis debated whether the execution of Eichmann would diminish the public understanding his trial and even that of the Holocaust itself.  The government proceeded with hanging, but it was not a demonstrative act.  And Eichmann’s ashes were discreetly scattered in the Mediterranean afterwards.

Sadly the image of Saddam’s trial will not be the accused defying his judges or his traumatized accusers in court, but rather the al-Malaki government’s foolhardy rush of the condemned man to the gallows and the vengeful mocking of his executioners.   And it all could have been avoided.  After all, trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity have been held for the past sixty years – the Baghdad trials are not the first where the problems of the past two weeks have been confronted. Despite de jure Iraqi legal sovereignty in the matter, the State Department could easily have delayed handing Saddam over for a hurried hanging so that – as US military authorities had hoped – the execution might meet some international standard of decorum.  Most amazingly, al-Malaki does not seem to have thought at all about the disposition of Saddam’s remains until after the execution, whereupon the Prime Minister became involved in a bitter dispute with Saddam’s Albu Nasir tribe over the return of Saddam’s body to his home town of Tikrit.  According to the New York Times the body sat outside al-Malaki’s office in an ambulance for seventeen hours before it was handed over for burial at the Americans’ insistence.  As al-Malaki had rightly feared, locals began the process of turning Saddam into a martyr immediately, and the demonstrations have spread from Iraq to the Palestinian territories.  Just as Washington’s ill-timed wavering resulted in the premature handover of a live Saddam to his executioners, Washington’s ill-timed firmness afterwards resulted in handing a dead Saddam to his worshippers.  Thus from a mass murderer has been fashioned a martyr – the one unforgivable mistake in a trial of this type.  

Al-Malaki does not seem to understand it all. In the days following the broadcast of the cell-phone images, the Prime Minister was far more upset about the images having been leaked than with the policies that led to the fiasco in the first place.  The United States, which pioneered the international judicial standards first seen at Nuremberg, should have known better than to give in to policies that would so obviously damage what was supposed to have been one of the few positive signature moments in the entire tragic Iraq war – the Trial of Saddam Hussein.  In retrospect, the Iraqis and Americans have unwittingly made a powerful argument for primacy of the judicial body that each has rejected, namely the International Criminal Court.  To be sure a trial of Saddam at The Hague would not have been perfect.  But Saddam would have answered for all of his crimes and his punishment, if not equal to the suffering he caused, would at least have not detracted from it.  And if such a trial would have occurred far from the scenes of Saddam’s crimes, then at least it would have been less far removed from a more measured and careful form of justice.