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Saddam Trial: GOP Sacrifices Justice for an 'October Surprise'

The Bush administration had the opportunity to show the world the best principles of liberal democracy. Instead, it opted for a dog-and-pony show for the sake of partisan gain.
 
 
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A Baghdad court in the heavily defended Green Zone found Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants guilty of crimes against humanity on Sunday for wiping out the Shiite village of Dujail after an attempt on Hussein's life there in 1982.

Saddam and two others were sentenced to death. Their sentences will automatically be appealed. A second trial for waging a genocidal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s is under way.

Baghdad and other flashpoints in Iraq's simmering civil war have been under curfew in anticipation of a fresh wave of violence following the verdict. At this writing, fighting has been reported in predominantly Sunni areas of Baghdad. Large, angry protests among the Sunnis and raucous celebrations among Iraq's long-oppressed Shiites and Kurds suggest that the sentence is only likely to worsen Iraq's sectarian divide.

The verdict comes just two days before voters in the United States cast their ballots in a political environment that has been toxic for Republicans, in large part because of the war. Polls show that almost nine in ten Americans favor either a total withdrawal of American troops from Iraq or at least a fundamental change in strategy. Iraq is the most important issue for voters, who, by a 51-36 margin, say that Democrats would do a better job handling the mess. As of Saturday, Democrats led in 37 contested House races and trailed in none.

Bush said of the ruling, "Saddam Hussein's trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people's effort to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law." It was the 15th "milestone" or "turning point" cited by the administration in the three and a half years of Iraq's steadily deteriorating occupation.

White House press flack Tony Snow told his former colleagues at Fox News that it was "a good day for the Iraqi people." Regarding charges that the verdict was timed to influence the midterms in the United States, "the conspiracy theorists are climbing out of the woodwork trying to manipulate things," Snow said. "The most important thing to know is that the Iraqis are running their own system. We're not telling them what to do, when to do or how to do it."

The statement begs the question, not for the first time: Exactly how stupid does this White House think we are?

Scott Horton, a Columbia University law professor who's been to Baghdad several times to see the proceedings up close, told the Nation's Tom Engelhardt that "most observers expected the date would be much later, but it seems to have been moved up." He said the verdict's timing "is designed to show some progress in Iraq" so that "the American public will see Saddam condemned to death and see it as a positive thing."

In my experience, everything that comes out of Baghdad is very carefully prepared for U.S. domestic consumption. ... There is a team of American lawyers working as special legal advisers out of the U.S. embassy, who drive the tribunal. They have been involved in preparing the case and overseeing it from the beginning. The trial, which is shown on TV, has mild entertainment value for Iraqis, but they refer to it regularly as an American puppet theater.

The occupation authorities are decidedly political. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of " Imperial Life in the Emerald City," wrote that partisan loyalty has consistently trumped experience when it comes to hiring Americans to staff the largest embassy in the world, in Baghdad's Green Zone:

[The authorities] posed blunt questions to some candidates about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people who sought jobs with the U.S. occupation authority said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade .

Although the trial was expected to last months longer, the date of the verdict was moved up, in part by ending the evidentiary phase before all of the defense's witnesses could be heard. Presiding judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman -- the third judge to oversee the trial -- shut down the testimony before it was complete, saying: "We are done with witnesses. ... If those 26 were not able to make the case, then 100 will not."

Abdel-Rahman got the job after the Iraqi government and its American "advisors" dismissed the previous judge, Abdullah al-Amiri, for being "too soft" on Hussein. In January, the first judge to hear the case resigned because of the government's attempt to influence the proceedings. An Iraqi source told reporters: "He's under a lot of pressure. The whole court is under political pressure."

Ironically, if there is a new wave of violence, the rushed decision could very well backfire on the administration; instead of two news cycles with the Fox News ticker reading "Justice for Saddam," the last 48 hours of the campaign could be dominated by stories of the unfolding chaos.

Apparently that's a risk the administration is willing to take. From the outset, politics have come before justice in the trials of Saddam Hussein. The proceedings, which the administration and its boosters likened to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials in the late 1940s, have been a sham from the start, marred by stunning levels of interference from the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. The occupation forces launched the trial before a government with a veneer of sovereignty was even established. Before Hussein was found guilty, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly called for his swift execution.

Three of Saddam's lawyers, one of the prosecuting judges and his son, and another judge's brother-in-law have been gunned down in the streets during the trial. Defense attorneys have boycotted the proceedings and still others have been barred from the courtroom.

According to Human Rights Watch, defense counsel hasn't been allowed to consult with their clients; HRW expressed "concerns" over the proceedings' "inappropriate standard of proof and inadequate protections against self-incrimination." The defendants have alleged that they've been beaten in custody. They've been kicked out of the courtroom every time they open their mouths, probably because of fears that they'll remind people that the same country occupying Iraq today was supporting Saddam during the worst of his abuses. Judges allowed prosecuting attorneys to introduce evidence without giving the defense a chance to preview it, which Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's international justice program, called "trial by ambush." There aren't adequate transcripts of the proceedings.

That's the process that Fox News said has been "lauded for its fairness." Future generations of law students will study it as a textbook example of a kangaroo court, a model of "victor's justice."

Before he got the job advising Iraqi officials during the trial, even Case Western Reserve University law professor Michael Scharf, now one of the proceedings' staunchest defenders, wrote of the tribunal:

... [It] is in fact not international enough to successfully accomplish the goals that have been set for it. As currently structured, the Iraqi Special Tribunal risks being seen by both Iraqis and outsiders as a puppet of the occupying power, and as a tool for vengeance by Saddam Hussein's enemies, rather than as the cornerstone of a new judicial system committed to the rule of law.

Attorney and right-wing blogger John Hinderaker, summed up the myopic bloodlust with which many of the war's supporters have justified the sham trial, writing: "the whole idea of 'trying' Saddam is foolish. His countless crimes are known to the Iraqi people, and the world, beyond the ability of any judicial proceeding to prove or disprove ... Saddam should have been shot years ago."

What people like Hinderaker fail to grasp is that the importance of Saddam the human being -- a 69-year-old thug pulled out of a "spider hole" two years ago -- pales next to the significance of Saddam the dictator -- the leader who ordered the gassing of the Kurds, who drained the "Marsh Arabs'" marshes, who put down his opponents with remarkable cruelty, who ordered whole villages to be razed and under whom torture was almost as prevalent as it is in Iraq today.

It's the principle of the rule of law that will suffer when the hang-man's noose tightens around Hussein's neck. Since the adoption of the Genocide Convention in 1951, no national leader has been convicted in a competent court of humanity's highest crime, and with the trial of Saddam Hussein widely considered to be a joke, that will continue to be the case.

Human Rights Watch's Malcolm Smart called the trial an "an opportunity missed" and said it "should have been a major contribution towards establishing justice and the rule of law in Iraq, and in ensuring truth and accountability for the massive human rights violations perpetrated by Saddam Hussein's rule." Instead, as Mohamad Bazzi reported this week from Beirut, "Hussein could become a martyr for the nationalist strain of the Iraqi insurgency, and in death he could be an even more potent symbol than" in life, "especially if [the proceedings are] perceived not to meet international standards."

It's inconceivable that a man with Saddam Hussein's ego wouldn't prefer a quick martyr's death after a trial widely viewed as a mockery of justice to being humbled before the rule of law -- to having the impunity that marked his decades of rule ripped away from him before the eyes of the world.

A fair trial would have demonstrated some of the best principles of liberal democracy: judicial independence, the right to a rigorous defense and the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. But, tragically, in order to get vengeance against Saddam the flesh-and-blood man -- and for the sake of the American electoral calendar -- Saddam the dictator will never see justice.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.

 
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