Monday, September 26, 2005

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How to try Saddam

How do you try a dictator for crimes committed while in office? The question is not an easy one to answer. The best treatment I've seen of this problem, ironically, is fictional: Julian Barnes' The Porcupine.

This question will rear its head again when Saddam is put on trial in three weeks. Gary Bass -- author of Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals -- has a non-Times-Select op-ed in the NYT expressing concerns about how the Iraqi government is handling the matter:

The Iraqi war crimes tribunal's first case against Mr. Hussein, which opens Oct. 19, charges him with the 1982 massacre of at least 143 men and boys from the village of Dujail. This was meant to be a test case of manageable scope and strong evidence. Unfortunately, Laith Kubba, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, says that once the court has reached a guilty verdict in the Dujail case, the near-certain sentence of death "should be implemented without further delay."

But if Mr. Hussein is executed for the Dujail killings, he will never be called to account for the larger atrocities on which he was arraigned in July 2004: killing political rivals, crushing the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, invading Kuwait in 1990, and waging the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988, including gassing Kurdish villagers at Halabja.

If this sounds trivial, Bass is correct to point out that the treatment of Saddam's past affects Iraq's political future:

[T]he Iraqi tribunal would do well not to rush Mr. Hussein to the gallows. A hasty execution would shortchange Mr. Hussein's victims and diminish the benefits of justice. Baathists would be all the more likely to complain about a show trial. Kurds would rightly feel that they were denied their day in court for the Anfal campaign. Shiites in the south would also be deprived of a reckoning.

A thorough series of war crimes trials would not only give the victims more satisfaction but also yield a documentary and testimonial record of the regime's crimes. After Nuremberg, the American chief prosecutor estimated that he had assembled a paper trail of more than five million pages. A comparably intensive Iraqi process would help drive home to former Baathists and some Arab nationalists what was done in their names. The alternative is on display in Turkey, where the collapse of a war crimes tribunal after World War I paved the way for today's widespread Turkish nationalist denial of the Armenian genocide.

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan on 09.26.05 at 11:34 AM


A good case could be made that the trial of Saddam has already gone off the rails by being delayed for so long. Eighteen months ago there was only one thing in Iraq less popular than the occupation, but time moves on and memories fade.

I agree with the main point Bass makes in The Times today. But this trial cannot be allowed to turn into something like the Milosevic circus, dragging on for year after year and being drained of any political good it might do. The one hope Iraq has right now is a decisive repudiation of its Baathist past, and this trial is the best means of getting to that point.

posted by: Zathras on 09.26.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

A thorough series of war crimes trials would not only give the victims more satisfaction but also yield a documentary and testimonial record of the regime's crimes.

Unfortunately it would also be a reminder of our own complicity in some of those crimes. We can't really charge him with the big stuff without airing the coalition's own dirty laundry.

posted by: Carl on 09.26.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

I think putting the sins of the West in perspective can only do good- sure, we let him do a lot of the things he did, but he still did do them himself...

posted by: perianwyr on 09.26.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

I'm not defending Saddam by any means, Peri. I'm just saying that this is a consideration when US and Iraqi offcials decide what to charge him with.

And it's not just those in the "West" who Saddam could embarrass. Many in the current Iraqi gov't fought for the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war, and they don't want Saddam talking about that in court.

From this perspective, it's better to charge him with a relatively minor crime, where he can be gaveled down by the judge if he tries to bring up these touchy issues.

posted by: Carl on 09.26.05 at 11:34 AM [permalink]

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