By Richard Dicker, Director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch
Published in The Guardian
The imminent execution of Saddam Hussein and two other former Iraqi officials marks a further step away from respect for human rights and the rule of law in a deeply polarised and violent Iraq. For 15 years Human Rights Watch and other organisations documented rights violations committed by the former government. There is no question that Saddam and his cohort were responsible for horrific practices. But by ratifying the execution order the tribunal's appeals chamber has compounded the serious errors committed at trial and further undermined the credibility of the process.
This follows a trial whose serious flaws rendered the verdict unsound. The trial was undermined from the start by persistent political interference from the Iraqi government. Furthermore, the rights of the defendants were systematically denied by failures to disclose key evidence to the defence. There were also serious violations of the defendants' rights to confront witnesses testifying against them. Most disturbing were the frequent lapses of judicial demeanour by the trial's second presiding judge. In January, the first chief judge resigned in protest over the public criticism of his trial management practices by leading officials.
These failures contrast with the seriousness of the cases before the tribunal. For the first time since the postwar Nuremberg trials, almost the entire leadership of a repressive government faced trial for gross human rights violations. It offered the chance to create a historical record of some of the regime's unspeakable rights violations and to begin the process of accounting for the policies and decisions that gave rise to them. Trials conforming to international standards of fairness would have been more likely to ventilate and verify the historical facts, contribute to the public recognition of the experiences of victims, and set a more stable foundation for democratic accountability. Instead, unlike the Nuremberg trials, the proceedings have fallen far short of creating the reference point that could clarify for Iraqis what happened and why.
The death sentence is a further step away from respect for human rights. The death penalty, regardless of the crimes involved, is tantamount to cruel and inhuman punishment. For an Iraq where, one hopes, human rights and the rule of law will one day be respected, Saddam's punishment is an important benchmark. The execution order signals the shallowness of the government's commitment to basic human rights in meting out punishment.
The momentary elation over Saddam's demise among those who suffered under his regime will not outweigh or outlast the loss of a unique opportunity to establish a clear record of his regime's criminality. The flawed trial and a fast-track execution send a clear signal that political interference is still very much a feature of the judicial process in the new Iraq.