Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Let Justice Be Done

Saddam Hussein’s trial should accord him the rights he denied others, but Iraqis must see justice done.

The final years of the 20th century were, to borrow the words of United Nations ambassador Gian-Domenico Picco, a decade of indignities - indignities that, following the Holocaust, the world believed could never be revisited.

But such atrocities have been repeated time and again since 1945, by dictators like Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein – all of whom exercised power with impunity and arbitrary cruelty.

For a few of these people, their come-uppance has been as violent as their rule, while others seem to escape retribution altogether, living in exile or dying a natural death.

Those who are captured, like Milosevic and now Saddam, are granted the luxury of a judicial hearing in which they have the right to defend their wrongdoing.

In case of Iraq, the statute establishing a special tribunal to try Saddam has caused ethical controversy because it allows for the death penalty if he is found guilty.

The way the former leader is treated in custody, and what happens to him afterwards, raises many moral questions.

Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace outlined the Vatican's opposition to the death penalty, adding that he felt compassion for Saddam and that the world should have been spared the images of the medical examination he went through after his arrest.

As a Muslim, I admit I felt compassion for Saddam, too.

Islam, like other great faith traditions, teaches a higher morality, the essence of which is not to seek revenge or retaliation. The Koran (2:291.) says, "Oppression and persecution are worse than killing."

This ethic of tolerance is a consistent feature of the Koran.

But I do not allow that sense of compassion to block out my yearning for justice, just as I do not allow my knowledge of this man's many horrendous crimes, and my anger at them, to cloud my sense of reason.

As someone who was directly affected by Saddam's cruelties - although I am not an Iraqi – I believe we should see it as ironic not that he should face justice (whether administered by the United States military or the Iraqi civil authorities), but that he will be tried by universal principles of justice and humanity which he never extended to anyone during his own time in absolute power.

His detention proves that it is possible to render leaders accountable for devastating entire families, communities and even entire ethnic groups.

When we hear lengthy accounts of the former president's career in chilling detail – men arbitrarily rounded up and summarily executed, often inside places of worship; women and girls kidnapped and raped; children tied to the fronts of tanks to deter rebel snipers – we will perhaps understand why it is that the Iraqi people are thirsting not for revenge, but for justice.

Sayyid Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, my friend and mentor who was murdered in the holy city of Najaf on the day Iraq was liberated last year, believed that ridding Iraq of Saddam's tyranny was "an obligation enjoined by every sacred code of law and supported by every secular ethical system".

"The people see the issue as being essentially one of ethics and humanity," he wrote.

According to Islamic law, Saddam Hussein's trial must be fair and impartial. And justice – and the penalties prescribed by law – must be carried out.

The tribunal has been criticised as having been established without prior consultation, and particular concern has rightly been expressed about the possible application of the death penalty.

But I believe that in defending human rights, we also have an obligation to ensure that the climate of fear created by the perpetrators of abuses is dispelled.

In Iraq, that fear will end only when justice is truly done, and the dictator is seen to have paid appropriately for his crimes.

Sayyid Nadeem Kazmi is Head of International Development for the Al-Khoei Foundation in London and New York, and editor of the monthly magazine Dialogue.

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