Who Will Judge Saddam? Former British MP Tony Benn Discusses the Prosecution of Iraq’s Former Leader

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Human rights groups want him tried by an international court. The U.S.-appointed Governing Council wants him tried in Iraq. The UN opposes sentencing him to death. As the debate rages over what to do with Saddam Hussein, we go to London to speak with former British MP Tony Benn. [includes transcript]

Saddam Hussein’s family wants the former Iraqi leader to be tried by an international court instead of a special tribunal set up by the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council.

His daughter, Raghad Saddam Hussein, said her father appeared sedated in footage released after his capture saying, “He would be a lion even when caged.”

Iraq’s U.S.-appointed Governing Council members are confident that Saddam will be tried before the special war crimes tribunal and could face the death penalty. Council members told the Associated Press the trial will be televised and could begin as soon as the next few weeks or as late as summer.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday the UN would not support bringing Saddam before a tribunal that might sentence him to death. In Britain, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw stated that while Britain opposes the death penalty, it will respect an Iraqi courts’ decision about the fate of Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, a senior State Department official told Newsday that the Bush administration “reserves the right” to try Saddam for crimes against the United States. The official did not rule out the possibility of multiple prosecutions, adding that Kuwait and Iran also have an interest prosecuting Hussein.

At a hastily arranged White House news conference, President George W. Bush yesterday refused to commit the United States to handing Hussein over to the Iraqis.

  • President George Bush speaking at White House press conference December 15, 2003.
  • Tony Benn, Former British Labor minister. He joins us on the phone from London.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bush said Saddam Hussein will be put on trial in a manner to be determined in conjunction with the Iraqis whom the former dictator brutalized across 30 years of rule. These are excerpts of his news conference:

REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President. What’s the United States going to do with Saddam Hussein after questioning him? Will he be turned over to Iraqis for trial? Based on what you know now about mass executions and hundreds of thousands of graves, do you think that execution should be an option?

PRESIDENT BUSH: He will be detained. We will work with the Iraqis to develop a way to try him, and I — that will stand international scrutiny, I guess is the best way to put it. I shared my sentiments today with Prime Minister Martin of Canada. He asked me about Saddam Hussein and his trial. I said, listen, the Iraqis need to be very much involved. He was the person — they were the people that were brutalized by this man. He murdered them, he gassed them, he tortured them. He had rape rooms, and they need to be very much involved in the process. And we will work with the Iraqis to develop a process. Of course, we want it to be fair. Of course, we want the world to say, well — listen, we have got to have a fair trial, because whatever justice is meted out needs to stand international scrutiny. I have got my own personal views of how he ought to be treated, but that’s — I’m not an Iraqi citizen. It’s going to be up to the Iraqis to make those decisions.

REPORTER: The question of execution —

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yeah, I said I had my own personal views. This was a brutal dictator. He’s a person that killed a lot of people. And — but my views, my personal views are not important in this matter. What matters is the views of the Iraqi citizens. We need to work, of course, with them to develop a system that is fair where he will be put on trial, and will be brought to justice. The justice he didn’t, by the way, afford any of his own fellow citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Bush yesterday at a news conference in response to the capture of Saddam Hussein. Coming up on the program, we’re going to the Hague where Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark is testifying at the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, but right now, we go to London, to speak with the former Labour Parliamentarian, Tony Benn, who was in the British parliament for more than half a century and was among the last to meet Saddam Hussein in an interview that we broadcast on Democracy Now!. Tony Benn, welcome to Democracy Now!.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Your response to what has unfolded over the last few days.

TONY BENN: Well, I have just come back last night from Cairo where there was a huge conference on the crisis in the Middle East with about 1,000 people and Ramsey Clark, the former Attorney General of the United States and Dennis Halliday were there, and about 100 delegates from Britain. Of course, there the main focus is on Palestine and what’s happening to them, but Saddam’s arrest came at the end of the conference. A lot of questions were asked about it. I mean, I think — nobody doubts that was a brutal dictator with many crimes against him, particularly against the Iraqis, but it did raise in people’s minds the extent to which the trial would be able to bring out a lot of other things, including the role played by the United States and Britain in arming Saddam, and whether this will be permitted or not, I do not know. I would be surprised if Rumsfeld would want to be subpoenaed to appear in a trial in Baghdad as to the role he played in supplying elements for weapons, which he did.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your response to your countrymen? Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who said that Britain would not object to a trial that could lead to the death penalty, though it is not allowed in Britain, if that were the decision of Iraqi courts.

TONY BENN: Well, the Iraqi court will be set up, of course, by an American administration. It’s an occupying army. The governing council are their puppets, and the court would be under that; and for a British minister, who is totally opposed in principle nationally and internationally to the death penalty to say that, I think is an indication he felt this is what the President would want and wouldn’t want to seem to differ from him, but it’s quite outrageous, because we have taken a very principled position on the death penalty, and to suggest that there’s an exception in this particular case would just make a mockery of the claim to have a principled position on public — on executions.

AMY GOODMAN: We just got this report from Reuters news wire. It’s from principally Israel. It says, Israeli commandos planned to assassinate Saddam Hussein at a funeral after the 1991 Gulf War, but the operation was aborted after five soldiers were killed in training. That’s according to security sources cited by Reuters. It says military censors lifted a decade-old ban on reporting the plan on Monday allowing newspapers to publish details of the aborted mission just days after the ousted Iraqi leader was captured. The Israeli government never got as far as approving the plan meant to retaliate for Scud missiles during the Gulf War. Israeli commandos would have been dropped deep into Iraqi territory several miles from a cemetery where Saddam was expected at a funeral of an uncle who was believed by Israeli military intelligence to be near death. The soldiers would have fired a specially adapted smart missile with a small camera in its nose allowing them to target Saddam amidst a crowd of officials, family members, and body guards attending the funeral, but the operation was abandoned after five soldiers were killed by a missile in a rehearsal of the mission at a training base in southern Israel on November 5, 1992.

TONY BENN: Well, that is well-documented and there’s a lot to come out, but I think what it highlights is: assassination is accepted as a legitimate policy by Israel, by the United States, and indeed, Britain tried to assassinate President Nasser at the time of the Suez War. In the old days when charges of assassination were laid against governments, they always denied it, but now they don’t. Indeed, the Israeli cabinet considered the assassination of Arafat, President Bush’s view of assassination is a bit unclear, but I, having ordered Saddam — what was it $25 million alive or dead, that implied that a dead body would have been acceptable and that would have involved an assassination. I think this is some indication of the complete disappearance of any moral or legal basis for policy if you are strong enough to carry it through. That’s the situation we are in. It is in that sense just such an incredible denigration of what we’re supposed to be about, and I believe as international law and even moral law, if you like in the conduct of our affairs.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, we have to break for 60 seconds. We’ll be back with the former Labour Parliamentarian after this break. Stay with us.

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