A Death Sentence Affirmed

Friday, December 29, 2006

WITH TUESDAY'S decision by an Iraqi appeals body to affirm the death sentence of Saddam Hussein, the execution of the former tyrant could take place within weeks. Under Iraqi law, a death sentence must be carried out within a month of its confirmation; though Iraqi officials have made conflicting statements about timing, the country's Shiite-dominated government is unlikely to show mercy. For those who oppose the death penalty, as we do, any execution is regrettable -- and this one, should it come to pass, will follow highly imperfect judicial proceedings and may in the short term inflame sectarian divisions. But it's hard to imagine the death penalty existing anywhere for any crime and not for Saddam Hussein -- a man who, with the possible exception of Kim Jong Il, has more blood on his hands than anyone else alive. Should the world see his end in the coming days, the justice will be imperfect. But it will still be justice.

To be sure, this was not the accountability that one would hope for Saddam Hussein. For one thing, the crime for which he has been condemned -- the killing of 148 men and boys from the town of Dujail after an assassination attempt against him there in 1982 -- will be but a footnote in the volume detailing his atrocities. And his execution will cut short his trial for the crimes that would fill out that volume: the so-called Anfal campaign, in which tens of thousands of Kurds were murdered.

What's more, his trial was in no sense the model of civilized justice that would have showcased a new, democratic Iraq -- in large measure because that new Iraq has yet to materialize. Several defense lawyers were murdered; judges had to be replaced. Political interference was evident. Even this week, the appeals tribunal sent back one life sentence as insufficiently tough, in effect demanding death for one of the co-defendants.

Still, there is something unreal about the cries of foul from human rights groups demanding perfect procedural justice from a country struggling with civil war, daily bombings and death-squad killings. The reality is that by the trial's end, there was no significant factual dispute between prosecution and defense: Saddam Hussein acknowledged on national television that he had signed the death warrants after only the most cursory look at the evidence against his victims. That, he testified proudly, "is the right of the head of state." Exactly what would a perfect trial be capable of discovering?

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