Saddam’s Kind of Justice, But in America’s Name

010806 article conason Saddam’s Kind of Justice,  But in America’s NameThe trial and punishment of the late Saddam Hussein ought to have been accomplished with respect for law and human dignity—not necessarily because the former dictator deserved such consideration, but because all who have died in the name of democracy over the past three years certainly do.

Instead, his hurried hanging at dawn by a gang of masked guards in leather jackets was all too reminiscent of the lawless carnage routinely carried out in the old Baathist regime’s prison cells. Indeed, the ugly event took place on the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, as celebrated by the Sunnis, in the same building where Saddam’s secret police used to string up his political opponents. Among the many things that have not improved much in Iraq since the U.S. invasion is the administration of criminal justice.

Intentionally or ineptly, the Bush administration permitted this embarrassment to be perpetrated in the name of the American people. The President contributed his own special combination of false and foolish commentary when he released a statement praising the execution as the result of “a fair trial.”

What Mr. Bush means when he utters those words is unclear. Spoken by him, such rhetorical phrases are devoid of their historical meaning in American and international law. It is very unlikely that the President actually knows whether Saddam received due process, and even less likely that he cares. He may well have received the customary reassurances from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who always made certain that his brief deliberations on executions as Texas governor were free of confusing facts, wholly predetermined and, oh yes, “fair.”

For those who do care about the reputation of American justice as well as the prospects for a civilized future in Iraq, the way that Saddam met his end was not uplifting. After decades of totalitarian rule, there were few qualified Iraqi jurists available to deal properly with the massive docket of crimes committed by the Baathist government. Human Rights Watch—which exposed Saddam’s abuses back when he was still being coddled by Republican politicians—urged the creation of a competent tribunal that included both Iraqi and international judges. But the Bush administration disdains all international institutions, so that wise proposal was dismissed.

The Iraqi High Tribunal, set up and operated with U.S. assistance, was unable to run the court with any semblance of impartiality or independence during the trial of Saddam and his co-defendants for mass killings in the town of Dujail. According to a November 2006 report by Human Rights Watch, the defense attorneys had no reliable means to submit evidence and motions, or even to receive accreditation to represent their clients. The court was unable to keep track of submitted documents—and copies of the investigative dossier that formed the main body of prosecution evidence, as provided to defense counsel, were largely illegible.

No security measures were taken to protect the defense lawyers before the Dujail trial, so several of them were promptly murdered as soon as it began. Those who survived were unable to effectively question prosecution witnesses. Meanwhile, prosecutors acted as public spokesmen for the tribunal, casting doubt on its fairness, as did constant prejudicial comments and announcements emanating from the Iraqi national-security advisor.

The kangaroo-court proceedings concluded in late December with a mockery of the right to appeal. With only 30 days to prepare and argue their case against the predetermined verdict, the defense lawyers didn’t receive the 300-page guilty opinion until more than halfway through that period. They had less than two weeks to respond.

When the appeal was denied on Dec. 26, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, described as “frantic” to see his enemy executed, signed a death warrant of dubious legitimacy in violation of Iraqi law. On a secretly recorded video, the hanging looks and sounds much like an old-fashioned lynching. The noose is fitted and the trap door springs while a jeering mob screams “Muqtada! Muqtada!” in homage to Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite warlord.

They don’t even do a fair trial that way in Texas anymore.

Despite late and feeble protestations by American officials—who supposedly tried to postpone the execution because of concerns about its legality—suspicions abound that the Bush administration wanted this travesty to unfold exactly as it did. Saddam was a dangerous man until the very end, who might someday have squealed on his longtime benefactors in the C.I.A. and the Reagan administration. As for Mr. Bush, always simple-minded and bloody-minded, he probably believes that executing Saddam will somehow adorn his discreditable legacy.

It won’t, because the hanging of Saddam was not only a judicial miscarriage, but a strategic blunder. While he was in American custody, the U.S. could have wielded a powerful incentive to urge the Shiite-dominated governing coalition toward serious negotiation with the Sunni rebels. Squandering that opportunity while dishonoring decent standards was worse than venal. It was stupid.