Thursday, June 03, 2004


The Trial of Saddam Hussein

The current bulletin is being delayed for non-conspiracy related technical reasons. In the meantime, here is something i wrote about the implications of the arrest of Saddam Hussein. It was written last December, but it still basically stands up on re-reading, i think, so here it is.
So far there have been few developments with respect to a trial of Saddam Hussein. There have been some political developments within Iraq which have overtaken this article, but the various points made here still stand.

The arrest of Saddam Hussein has profound consequences for many issues of great significance and has had a dramatic impact on events in Iraq - a lot of things to give careful thought to. And yet, i doubt that i'm alone when i confess that my first thought was "Whoa - he's got a beard." I really should remember for future major historical events to try and make my first thought something interesting. September 11th, the fall of the Berlin Wall etc. - can hardly remember my first reaction, but it was nothing great.

The arrest of Saddam Hussein put a smile, well more of a smirk actually, on George Bush's face (who still pronouces it "Surdaaarm") and inspired another embarrassingly insincere sermon from our Prime Minister here in England - but these are unfortunate side-effects of what was an overwhelmingly positive development. After the wanton summary executions of Uday and Qusay Hussein by troops of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, there was every reason to suspect that the US military would try and resolve the issue of Saddam Hussein in a similarly permanent fashion. Instead, the 4th Infantry Division produced Priority Target number 1 bloodlessly, giving a valuable opportunity for justice to take a hand. The US army has, of course, no right to be in Tikrit, but if they are there at all it might as well be to make that arrest.

According to the 4th infantry's story, they checked Saddam's old farmhouse (not a brilliant choice of hideout, incidentally) and discovered the concealed hole. They were about to chuck a hand grenade in it when Saddam's hands emerged upright and the former president told them, in English, "My name is Saddam Hussein. I am president of Iraq and I want to negotiate." And for the first time in decades, it would have been possible for someone to laugh in his face. The film footage of Mr "I am president of Iraq" showed a resigned man meekly accepting a medical check-up, prompting the rather unpleasant speculation that he might have given himself up like that in March 2003 when most Arab governments requested his resignation and Bush issued his ultimatum, rather than wait 9 months and thousands of deaths later.
The treatment of Saddam Hussein has prompted criticism and outrage, and raised the question of whether showing film of Saddam to the global media was a violation of the Geneva Convention, but it is difficult to see how the occupying authorities could have acted differently under the circumstances, nor is it clear that the Convention's articles on anonymity and safety of prisoners have been violated. Iraqis certainly needed to know and to be sure.
For some Iraqi rebels and others in the region, possibly even a few people in the West, the sight of Saddam humbled before the US is discouraging but it shouldn't be. It is a great mistake for people in Iraq or the Arab world to let a butcher like Saddam be the figurehead, even nominally, for patriotic or radical resistance to US imperialism. It is essential that those in the region who wish to challenge US hegemony do it themselves rather than channel their sympathies through his like. Those who secretly hoped that Saddam would give the US a bloody nose are asking to be - and deserve to be - disappointed.

It's unlikely that the police in England would take it kindly if anyone here chose to celebrate the capture of Saddam by firing off AK-47's into the air. Whenever i see Iraqis celebrating like that, i worry that we will see a follow up headline like "500 killed in Baghdad as stray bullets fired in celebrations wipe out residential block". Among the first to come out and celebrate was the Iraqi Communist Party, waving red flags and coming out on to the streets in force. In the South, Shi'ites held huge marches celebrating the end of their fear for their long-term tormentor. In the north, Iraqi Kurds were ecstatic. For many of the people in Iraq, it was the first piece of good news in months.
But among the stupider remarks made after the arrest was the rapidly over-used cliche that "Christmas had come early" for the Bush administration. For Iraqis and many others, that Christmas has come very, very late.

The arrest of Saddam Hussein marks an important opportunity to either take a step forward, or a step backward, in developing international law. We can continue the process begun with the arrest of General Pinochet and carried on through the arrests and trials of Hassain Habre, Foday Sankoh, Slobodan Milsoevic and figures in the Khmer Rouge and the attempted trial of Ariel Sharon that establish powerful legal precedents that can potentially restrict the criminal actions of the powerful and even catch up with the smug criminal elements in our own political and military establishment.
We should not underestimate the importance of this. During the US atrocity war in Vietnam, US General Telford Taylor decided to compare the conduct of the authors of that war with the precedent of the Nuremburg Trials and concluded carefully and quietly that some of their offences were capital crimes. As one commentator pointed out, it is not every day that a senior US general, jurist and legal expert concludes that a significant section of his political class should probably be dropped through a trapdoor with a rope around their necks. But the chances of actually trying these people is becoming less remote.
There are currently 4 lawsuits being filed against Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, in the US alone. He had to flee France to avoid anwering questions to a court, he runs from interviewers who ask him awkward questions, dodges subpoenas, hides even from pro-Pinochet judges in South America and Peter Tatchell was very close to getting a judge to issue an arrest warrant for him while he was in London. The law is, at last, developing the long arm it is supposed to have. Also, Britian's attache to Beijing, Brigadeer John Kerr may eventually be prosecuted for the murder of the Irish lawyer Pat Finucae and scores of other murders during a particularly dirty phase of the dirty war in Northern Ireland. The Met are even investigating the British army's massive atrocities in Kenya in the 1950s.
If Milosevic can be tried for the crimes of allies and proxies in Bosnia (as he should be), many members of the current US administration can certainly be tried for the comparable offences committed in Central America and elsewhere.

At the same time, the Bush administration is trying to bring a halt to the spread of international justice. So far they have used threats and bribes against any nation that will not agree that no US nationals should ever face trial before the International Criminal Court, and refused to co-operate with the ICC more generally. Bush's obvious hatred of international law could seriously compromise efforts to try Saddam Hussein properly.
It is exciting that with Saddam captured alive, he will face a trial. But so far, the indications of the character of the future trial are not good. It is quite clear that Bush hopes for a short trial ending in an execution. As the London director of Human Rights Watch told BBC news, the seeming generosity behind Bush's insistence that the trial be a purely Iraqi matter is entirely fake. The Bush administration hopes to avoid the dangers (to them) of strengthening international justice and avoid embarassing questions about US complicity in Saddam's worst atrocities. The US government never indicted Saddam Hussein as a war criminal or set up an international tribunal for Iraqi war criminals, and there is a reason.
Prospective members of the new Iraqi government are eager to dispatch Saddam in the manner of Nicolai Ceaucescu - a quick trial followed by an execution with the bloodied face of the dead dictator on the papers (to be fair, he certainly wanted to kill them). Meanwhile, much popular opinion in Iraq wishes to deal with Saddam not in the manner of Ceaucescu, but in the manner of Mussolini.
If anyone ever deserved the death penalty, Saddam Hussein is a qualifier. But it would be the wrong thing to do. First because the death penalty is barbaric and wrong in principle - the popular phrase to kill someone "execution-style" refers to a particularly cold-blooded, ruthless and psychopathic kind of homicide for a reason. Second, because it sets the wrong precedent for the new Iraq. And third, because Saddam must have huge amounts of information on the fates and whereabouts of large numbers of murdered people, and of the actions of his colleagues which may be lost permanently if he is killed quickly.
The Iraqi not-actually-Governing Council set out proposals on December 10th, three days before Saddam's capture, for trials for the criminals of the former regime, indicating some serious thought on the matter. But the Iraqi Communications Minister, interviewed on the BBC's Newsnight, strongly suggested that the death penalty would be used for Saddam. As for his trial, i quote from memory, "But really, what need do we have of proof?"

The issue is not proof - establishing Saddam's guilt for murder, genocide and aggression is about as difficult as reciting the alphabet. Whereas Milosevic's crimes were often devolved on to proxies and paper trails carefully avoided, Saddam Hussein was quite brazen about the killing thing. Human Rights Watch has 18 tonnes of official documents, most of them found in government buildings by Kurdish rebels during the 1991 revolution, recording in agonising detail the genocidal Anfal campaign. In proper Nazi style, Saddam's regime liked to film its worst atrocities in order to show the videos to undergraduate torturers in the lower echelons of the state apparatus. The US and British occupying authorities have been careless about collecting evidence for trials they don't want, leaving documents to scatter in the wind in burnt out ministries and mass graves to be dug up by desperate relatives without a proper forensic exhumation. A proper international tribunal like the one for the former Yugoslavia with teams of investigators and years of patient case-building costs hundreds of millions dollars - and Bush is quite happy not to pay for it.

Establishing Saddam's guilt is not a problem. The important issue, for those interested in justice, is to establish precisely what he did, how many were killed or tortured, where the disappeared are buried and who else was involved. Given the scale of the atrocities, a proper accounting in a court room would take years. A good trial offers something much more "cathartic" than an execution - the chance for victims to challenge and question their former tormentors. Consider this scene from the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia:

"In November 2000, a Muslim woman testified about the fall of Srebrenica and the disappearance of her husband and two sons. Before stepping off the stand, she asked the judges if she could herself pose a question to General Krstic. One of her sons was thirteen when Serb soldiers pulled him away from her outside the Dutch UN base. 'I plead that you ask Mr. Krstic if there is any hope' she said to the judge, as she choked on her grief. 'At least for that child which they took alive from my hands. I dream about him. He speaks to me. Does Mr. Krstic know if he is somewhere, alive?' Krstic sat frozen, his head down."

(Samantha Powers, 'A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide', p502)

I can hardly think of a single example that so powerfully illustrates the case for international justice as that, though i can think of many similar people in the situation of that woman. Needless to say, the mother's teenage son, as General Krstic would have known well, is dead.
Saddam remains unrepentent of his crimes - like Pinochet, like Milosevic, like Pol Pot, like Kissinger, like the whole lot of them. I read once that William the Conqueror wept on his death bed for the people of northern England whom he slaughtered mercilessly in the 11th century, but i can't recall any other cases of repentant tyrants.
Saddam hinted to his captors that he might refuse to go to the toilet since, "How can I use the bathroom when my people are in bondage?" To which the obvious answer is, Iraq has been in bondage since 1963 and for many of those years Saddam quite happily relieved himself in gold-plated bathrooms.
So far, 2,000 Kurdish bodies have been uncovered in a single grave in Kirkuk, 1,000 corpses in Muhammad Sakran, 72 in Najaf, 150 in Basra, 40 in Abul Khasib and what looks like a full 15,000 at Al-Mawahil. Saddam regards these people as treacherous agents of foreign powers and "thieves".

Saddam was dictator Al-Bakr's deputy after the second Ba'athist coup of 1968 and pushed aside his superior in 1979. In that time he killed unknown numbers in the Kurdish revolt of 1974-5, between half a million and just over one million Iranian soldiers and civilians in his war aginst Iran of 1980-88, around 180,000 Kurds during the genocide of 1987-88, tens of thousands more in crushing the revolt of March 1991, anywhere between 50-300,000 Shia Muslims during the Iraqi intifada that March, 2,000 killed in Kuwait, a number of Israeli civilians and unknown, uncounted tens of thousands of other Iraqis killed in the ordinary rounds of purge, torture, massacre and disappearance, people buried alive, bathed in acid, hanged in public, stuffed through plastic shredding machines, 1968-2003. Saddam was unusual in actually killing and torturing these people himself.
Saddam is an Arab Pol Pot. In the world today, only a handful of individuals really compare - the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, the authors of the genocide in Rwanda, General Suhartu of Indonesia who has had a sham trial involving only charges of corruption and the authors of the wars in Vietnam and the Congo. His indictment for crimes against peace and humanity is long overdue.

There is a corollary to this, of course. Most of Saddam's worst crimes were committed with the support of other governments - Arab governments, the Soviet Union, France, Britain and the US. I include below, for your benefit, a picture of Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein at the beginning of their beautiful relationship, December 20th, 1983:

Maybe they'll get back together again. This is not an innocent handshake. Rumsfeld was on a mission to re-establish full diplomatic relations and assist Saddam militarily in his war aginst Iran and his own population.

In the Milosevic trial, interesting testimony of Western complicity in some of his crimes have emerged. In the case of Saddam, the complicity is much deeper. One of the biggest opportunities of a trial of Saddam Hussein is for an international tribunal to subpoena members of foreign governments who facilitated his crimes. Chances are this crucial element of justice for Iraq will be missed, and the victims of Saddam and his backers short-changed.
One of the trickiest issues relates to what exactly constitutes a criminal offence. Saddam was hired as a CIA agent in the early 1960s when he was just a young torturer trying to help bring about a fascist coup and overthrow the Qassem government. In 1975, the US government and the Shah of Iran agreed on a deal with Baghdad and ended their support for the Kurdish revolt, leaving the Kurdish pesh merga to be massacred, as they were - a decision which a congressional investigation described as cynical even by the standards of covert operations.
In March 1991, just after the first Gulf War, the Bush senior administration accidentally prompted an Iraqi revolution rather than a military coup that they were hoping for. Bush Senior gave a speech urging the Iraqi people to rise up - they didn't realise that he didn't mean it. The word 'people' was added in at the last minute to give what was a speech addressed to the Iraqi army a more democratic feel.
Faced with a choice between popular revolt and genocidal dictatorship that they had just fought a war against, the US came down heavily on the side of the latter. US troops destroyed weapons dumps to stop the anti-Saddam rebels using them. They dug long ditches in the Iraqi desert to slow the rebels down and facilitate their slaughter at the hands of Saddam's army. They permitted Saddam the use of specially designated helicopter gunships in the mis-named no-fly zones to kill Shia and Kurds at will, while their planes flew overhead, watching the spectacle (remember this when you see those huge mass graves in the south of Iraq). Most fatefully, the Bush senior administration made clear its hostility to the rebels just at the moment when senior Iraqi army officers were trying to guess which side was going to win before taking sides. For many, the US position settled the matter. Only the massive flow of Kurdish refugees across the Turkish border prompted a US invasion in the north of Iraq to set up a safe haven once the Kurdish revolt was defeated - Operation Provide Comfort (to the Turkish government).
The trouble with all this is that it isn't illegal under existing laws, just really, really nasty. It is very hard to make a criminal case against those who did it.
However, in the case of Saddam's war of aggression against Iran and the chemical-weapon and machine-gun massacres of the Kurds in the 1980s, it is a different matter. Assisting aggression and assisting genocide are criminal offences (you'd hope, wouldn't you?). Providing weaponry, knowingly assisting in the development of a chemical weapons programme, providing satellite intelligence of Kurdish rebel positions, training Iraqi troops, providing money for purchase of more weapons straight after the Halabja massacre - that is the level of official US, British, French, Russian and Arab complicity. Furthermore, the Carter administration encouraged Saddam to invade Iran in the first place, while the Reagan administration joined in the fight, sinking Iranian ships and shooting down an Iranian passenger plane with more than 300 people in it. There's also the question of the lists of political opponents and their addresses given to the Ba'athists by the CIA during the first coup in 1963 - obviously, the CIA was asking them to arrest/kill anyone on the list, which they did.
A proper international tribunal should reveal all of this and could even lead to - whisper it - prosecutions. If it doesn't, then all the people who died in these crimes will have been sold out.

The other big issue raised by Saddam's arrest is, as the BBC liked to put it, will it lead to a reduction in the violence? Meaning, will Iraqi rebels stop trying to force the US army out of their country. The answer to that line of inquiry came pretty quickly. Maybe there are long-term trends that have been overlooked, but it doesn't seem likely.
On the day of Saddam's arrest, 17 people were killed in a rebel bombing attack on a police station (Christmas coming early for the Bush administration indeed). It would have been a major news story except that Saddam was captured. A US soldier also died while defusing a bomb that day, but there was no need to bring his death into it either - don't want to spoil an early Christmas after all. Staff Sgt. Kimberly A. Voelz his name was, for anyone who is interested. Aged 27. Three others have been killed in accidents since December 14th.
The following day, nine people were killed in two further attacks on police stations. Today, 17 people were killed on a busy road in Baghdad when a truck bomb exploded prematurely while on its way to another police station. I can't give you a single name. No, "the violence" in the offical euphemism for the war, is not about to stop.

Meanwhile, a different and more disgusting kind of killing has been going on. When Saddam was arrested, the biggest demonstrations were celebrating his capture. Not everyone agreed. In some parts of the country, the mood is different and there were demonstrations in Saddam's favour. The US army responded to these with ferocity. The BBC's John Simpson, in his excellent report on December the 16th showed shocking footage of Iraqis in Fallujah running for their lives and diving for cover as US bullets raced over their heads and into the crowd. Afterward, there gunfights between rebels and the Iraqi police, with the police in retreat. Protestors angrily stormed the US-appointed mayor's office and the mayor fled.
It was a pretty standard massacre. In Robert Fisk's report for the Independent, five protestors were killed. This was one incident among many around central Iraq. 18 protestors seem to have murdered in all, 11 in the town of Samarra.
The official military resposne is standard, too. The dead were "insurgents" and US troops had responded to attacks made against them. It's the same, boring, Bloody Sunday script. In several months time, the US army may sheepishly accept "liability" for the deaths and offer some financial compensation as they did with the original Fallujah massacre of April 28th.
The US military is going to have more trouble being believed as time goes on, especially after the debacle in Samara a couple of weeks ago. A US convoy carrying new banknotes arrived in the town and was ambushed by rebels, prompting return fire from US troops which killed a number of civilians, about 10. No rebels were identified among the dead. This story was reported by the US military as 'US army kills 54 insurgents'. The military wanted to get a headline that people would remember before professional journalists had time to go in and establish the facts - but even the Associated Press didn't believe the story and ran contradictory accounts along with the military's headline. For future reference, a claim by the US army that they killed a large number of rebels without taking any casualties or harming civilians is a lie until proven otherwise.

The capture of Saddam prompted much elation within the Bush administration partly because they have been constantly pushing the idea to the US public that all resistance in Iraq to the US presence is either directed by Saddam or his loyalists or what are called foreign fighters (foreign not including US, obviously!) of the Bin Laden kind. Ideologically, they cannot cope with the idea that some of those they are fighting are just Iraqis who want them out the country. For many in the US, Saddam is the mastermind behind 9/11 and capturing him means an end to the war in Iraq, if not the war on terrorism itself.
This line is not going to be easy to sustain in the coming months. It seems reasonably clear now that Saddam has not been directing guerrilla resistance. His capture may demoralise rebels who fought for his return - and a good thing if it does. But it may serve to encourage those who opposed his return but were drawn to the resistance against the US. With Saddam reduced to a bad memory, Iraqis have been showing signs of losing the old fears - now they set up their own newspapers, hold huge rallies and demonstrations and show their anger. A society that is armed to the death - you saw the guns that they were firing off in celebration - and just isn't afraid any more is in a position to make demands on its occupiers and to make their stay impossible.
The capture of Saddam means the final defeat of a major enemy of Iraqi freedom and that of the region, which it is why it is a good thing. The Iraqis are in a better position now to take on the other enemies of their freedom. So there are hopeful things in all this, but the bloody events of the last few days look set to carry on through the holiday season and into the new year. The only certainty about the future for Iraq is that more people will die, soon. Stay angry about it.

Saddam will have problems getting a fair trial as he should, Although he has done terrible things to the Iraqi people; He should get the same Justice as anybody else. If Justice failed for one person, what would stop it failing more people? The Jury will have to have been living in the dark for the last two decades to not be judgemental on this case.
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