Thursday, October 20, 2005

Saddam trial - fairness is irrelevant

Irrelevance of the question of fairness and justice

THE DRAMA is unfolding. An ousted Arab head of state was put on trial on Wednesday. There is a surrealistic air to the whole episode. Never before has anything resembling this script taken place anywhere in this world. A toppled Arab head of state has been charged with crimes against humanity and is being tried by a court formed under foreign military occupation and following laws and procedures dictated by a foreign military occupier. The person who succeeded him as president has already ruled that the accused is guilty as charged and deserves to be executed 20 times.
International legal experts have raised serious questions about the legality of the whole process. They point out that laws formulated under foreign military occupation could never be accepted as legitimate.
Surely, no one is forgetting that Saddam Hussein, the toppled Iraqi president, is accused of killing thousands of people in northern and southern Iraq who opposed him. Summary executions, long detentions and torture were his key tools to maintain his grip on power and eliminate dissent, according to his detractors. Among the most serious and specific charge is that he used chemicals to kill up to 5,000 Kurds in the north in the late 80s. Then there are charges related to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Iraqi military's suppression of the Shiite revolt in the south following the US-led war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. .
Then why is Saddam and seven others put on trial at this point in time charged with the killing of 143 people in the mostly Shiite town of Dujail following an assassination attempt against him? What is happening to the rest of the charges, including one that says he ordered the chemical attack on Halabja? Aren't those charges the most horrifying of all? When will those cases be heard by the special tribunal which is trying him?
Why not slap him with the most serious charge of all – of genocide of his people — and get over with whatever process is to be followed before the inevitable death sentence is pronounced against him?
Or will those cases ever come up in court with Saddam in the dock where he will, no doubt, take the grandstand and spill the beans as to who had given him not only the know-how and material to produce the weapons that went into some the crimes of which he is accuse?
That is the question that most people felt like asking on Wednesday. Indeed, there was no answer except an earlier contention by an Iraqi judge that the Dujail case was the easiest to put together as far as evidence-gathering and preparation is concerned, and because documents were already available. However, it sounds hollow, given the seriousness of other charges and cases.
The trial of has begun with all the elements of drama that were expected. The “what-is-your-name” by the judge and the “who-are-you-to-ask” by the defendant were all widely looked forward to by the world. The judge and the defendant played their parts well and there was a lot of adrenaline. While Saddam faces what many see as natural justice and many others see as nothing more than the celebration of an occasion to play “victors’ justice,” the question of the fairness of the trial is likely to be overlooked. Except for those who are to gain from this courtroom drama, others will be wondering which way justice is being guided.
It is only natural if one suspects the fairness of the trial of a former head of state while the country is still under occupation and he is being tried by a special tribunal formed of people who belong to groups that have always wanted him out of power
That is why most people would see Saddam’s trial as a showpiece for the interested parties to claim victory of “their” justice. It is not the question of whether Saddam deserves justice and punishment for the crimes he has done to his people that bothers the fair-minded. What is worrying is the packaging of the whole procedure into a marketable political commodity, aimed at settling old scores for some and justifying an illegal war for others. The trial smacks more of politics and revenge than of justice.
The immediate parallel to the Saddam trial is the trial of former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic by the UN war crimes court at the Hague. Heads of states facing trials over charges of crimes against humanity is a rare phenomenon. Saddam’s only predecessor in this matter is Milosevic. Both are being tried for mass murders and genocide. Evidence is plenty against the defendants. They also share the hatred against the courts that try them. But the glaring difference is that while one is being tried at a world court where international rules and regulations apply, the other is facing a court in his own occupied country that does not even have a proper constitution.
Most would agree that this is not the circumstances under which Saddam should have been made to face justice. But Washington wanted dictate the ground rules. Already the US is claiming that the trial is a victory for democracy and a “momentous step in the building of a new Iraq." For all the victors, the trial that seem to matter more than the verdict, which seems to be predetermined anyway if only because of some of them want to pre-empt the emergence of certain facts linked to their own backing for the accused and complicity in some of the serious crimes attributed to him.
What then is relevance of the question whether Saddam and others who are in the dock with him would get a fair trial?