On December 13, 2003, the 23-year reign of Saddam Hussein — the Iraqi dictator believed to be responsible for the deaths of at least 300,000 Iraqis — was ended by the soldiers of the United States Army 4th Infantry Division.
Saddam was found by U.S. armed forces near Tikrit, Iraq, in a “spider hole” (a military term used to describe a camouflaged opening that leads to a chamber or tunnels). Saddam’s spider hole was located six to eight feet underground and was just large enough to allow him to lie down. According to reports, he offered no resistance and was taken into custody at approximately 9:15 p.m.
Now leaders, analysts, and average citizens around the world struggle to determine how to best ensure that justice is served. As syndicated columnist Robert Scheer asked in a widely published editorial, “We got him — now what?”
During the first week of December, 2003, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), an interim governing body of 25 members (put in place by the U.S. administration) announced the formation of a war crimes tribunal and promised to provide “justice for oppressed Iraqis.” The deadline for the U.S. to transfer authority in Iraq to the IGC is July 1, 2004, and many believe that the new Iraqi government will re-instate the death penalty, which was suspended during the U.S. occupation.
“We will get sovereignty on the 30th of June, and I can tell you, [Saddam] could be executed on the first of July,” said Mouwafak al-Rabii, a Shiite Muslim and member of the IGC.
Others inside and outside Iraq advocate for an international court, similar to those created by the United Nations for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, that would take the option of the death penalty off the table.
“The U.N. does not support the death penalty and all the courts we have set up have not included the death penalty,” said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He acknowledged that Saddam has been accused of “heinous crimes, including gross and systematic violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.” But, he asserted, “It is essential and absolutely vital that all those responsible for these crimes should be brought to account. I think this should be done through open trials in properly established courts of law, which will respect basic international norms and standards.”
Many citizens — in the United States and Iraq — believe Saddam’s fate should be left in the hands of his victims. “I think he should be put in a zoo with the monkeys, and they should charge one dollar for people to spit on him,” said Rasul Al-Ramhahy, an Iraqi who fled the country in 1991 after his brother was killed in an uprising to overthrow Saddam.
Many leaders and news analysts believe that an Iraqi-led war crimes tribunal will reinstate the death penalty in Iraq to allow the execution of Saddam Hussein when the IGC takes control of the country in July, 2004. In contrast, an international court, backed by the United Nations (UN), would prohibit capital punishment, but would allow the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
In an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, President Bush — an advocate of the death penalty for murderers — made it clear that he supports a death sentence for Saddam Hussein. “Let’s just see what penalty he gets, but I think he ought to receive the ultimate penalty… for what he has done to his people. I mean, he is a torturer, a murderer, they had rape rooms. This is a disgusting tyrant who deserves justice, the ultimate justice.”
Bush stated that he believes Saddam should be tried by an Iraqi court, “[Saddam’s fate] will be decided not by the president of the United States, but by the citizens of Iraq in one form or another.”
His sentiment was echoed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has said he’s opposed to the death penalty, but will support the Iraqis’ right to decide for themselves what Saddam’s punishment should be. “It was people inside Iraq who were gassed. The mass graves inside of Iraq are full of Iraqis. It is just that his fate should rest with Iraqis… We would obviously have to abide by their rules.”
Additionally, Iran, Russia, and Malaysia have all expressed support for an Iraqi-led tribunal to try Saddam. “The analysis of the previous regime and the trial of its leader is the internal affair of the Iraqi people, and only the Iraqi people can decide the fate of their former leaders,” said Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov.
For many, there is no doubt that the Iraqis will re-establish the death penalty in Iraq when rule of the country is officially handed back to them from the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) on July 1, 2004. Ahmed Chalabi, a member of the IGC told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Saddam should be sentenced to death as soon as possible.
And in a CNN interview, when Chalabi was asked why Saddam should be tried in Iraq and if the death penalty was an option, he replied, “[I] feel that the whole tribunal process, the whole war crimes and crimes against humanity trial process, would be completely discredited in this country, in Iraq, if those who perpetrated those crimes are found guilty and subsequently they are allowed to live and stay in jail for 20 years and then be released…”
He continued, “I think if there is a fair trial in which the evidence is clearly laid out… people will begin to feel that their victim hood is being laid bear, that they feel that they are being righted. And if, ultimately, after a fair trial, Saddam Hussein is found guilty by a court… then I think the Iraqi people will feel vindicated if he is found guilty and subsequently if he is executed.”
Amar al-Hakim, also a member of the IGC and a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, said, “We want Saddam to get what he deserves. I believe he will be sentenced to hundreds of death sentences at a fair trial because he’s responsible for all the massacres and crimes in Iraq.”
“For nigh on a quarter of a century, Saddam Hussein gassed, murdered, poisoned, and tortured to death hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen,” The Economist stated in an article on December 18, 2003. “Iraqis who fell foul of the regime were beaten, raped, dunked in acid baths, and thrown into prison.”
Another article in The Economist entitled “Catalogue of Evil” lists the transgressions for which Saddam Hussein may be tried in a future trial.
- Iran-Iraq war 1980-88: use of chemical weapons and other war crimes, including the execution of thousands of Iranian prisoners of war
- The “Anfal” campaign against Iraqi Kurds in 1988: used poison gas on cities. Approximately 100,000 civilians were killed, more than 4,000 villages were destroyed, and nearly one million people were displaced
- Kuwait war 1990-91: crimes against humanity and war crimes
- Massacre of 30,000 Iraqi Kurds and Shia Muslims who rebelled after Saddam was expelled from Kuwait
- Persecution of the Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq: mass killings, expulsions, and the draining and poisoning of the marshes
- Ethnic cleansing of “Persians” and other non-Arabs in northern Iraq
- Unlawful killings, imprisonment, torture, rape, beatings, forced displacement and “disappearances.”
Many believe that for the above reasons, both the war against Iraq and the execution of Saddam are justified and necessary.
Stories from Iraqi citizens provide a personal perspective on the statistics of Saddam’s reign. Ali Al-Hachami owns a restaurant in Baghdad. In 1988, Saddam’s security forces murdered his uncle for joining a militia that was opposed to the regime. According to the Arizona Republic, the security forces then demanded that Al-Hachami’s family pay for the cost of the bullet used to kill him.
Another Iraqi, Hussein Ali Al Saberi, was arrested in 1987 for resisting the regime. He was a member of the Islamic Dawa party whose members were persecuted by the Baath party government. “There was a group of us, some 25 people,” he said. “They executed about half and the other half, they tortured… I was not allowed to travel, I could not work, they followed me all the time. It was not a life.”
For others, the possibility that Saddam was building weapons of mass destruction and the potential for a connection between him and designated international terrorist organizations (including Al Queda and Palestinian militia) warranted aggressive action against his regime — and are justification for his execution now.
In an interview with Diane Sawyer on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” President Bush said that the U.S. needs to continue to play a leading role in the war on terror. “My job is to do everything I can to protect America and Americans,” he said.
Bush continued, “[T]here is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous person, and there’s no doubt we had a body of evidence proving that, and there is no doubt that the president must act, after 9/11, to make America a more secure country… A gathering threat, after 9/11, is a threat that needed to be dealt with, and it was done after 12 long years of the world saying the man’s a danger. And so we got rid of him, and there’s no doubt the world is a safer, freer place as a result of Saddam being gone.”
Columnist William Safire echoed Bush’s sentiments in his editorial in The New York Times on December 16, 2003. “We are not finished with this remorseless monster; Saddam will have his day in an Iraqi court. But so will the ghosts of poison-gassed Halabja and Iraqi children forced to clear minefields in Iran,” he wrote. “The meticulous presentation of his offenses against humanity will demonstrate again that all that would have been necessary for the triumph of evil was for good people to do nothing.”