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The Hanging of Saddam Hussein: A Roundtable Discussion on International Law, the U.S. Role, the Kurdish Response and the Media’s Glossing Over of U.S. Ties to Saddam

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Democracy Now! talks to Param Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch; international law expert Richard Falk; Najmaldin Karim, president of the Washington Kurdish Institute; and Professor John Collins. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: It was a grisly scene. Just after dawn Saturday, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging in Baghdad. A video released on the Internet, filmed on a cellular phone, showed men preparing to execute Saddam Hussein. As the men [with Saddam Hussein argue] over how best to tie the noose, others behind the cameraman begin a series of chants, including “Muqtada! Muqtada!” a reference to the Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. As Saddam Hussein interrupts to mock Muqtada al-Sadr, the men tell him, “Go to hell.” The jeering continues as the noose is placed around Saddam Hussein’s neck. He says the testimony once, then as he is in the middle of repeating it a second time, the door below him opens, and he drops to his death. Afterwards, the chants continue. Hours later, the video was shown around the world, drawing massive protest.

President Bush hailed the execution as, quote, “the end of a dark era” for Iraq. Just hours earlier, Saddam Hussein had been transferred from U.S. custody to the custody of the Iraqi government. Last week, Hussein lost his final appeal and was sentenced to death by hanging for ordering the deaths of 148 Shiite Iraqis at Dujail in 1982. Yet while many Iraqis celebrated Hussein’s demise, the execution was also met with worldwide condemnation. Egypt, Libya, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the Vatican protested the hanging. Rallies were held in India and Pakistan throughout the weekend. In the Iraqi city of Samarra Monday, Sunni demonstrators stormed the Al-Askariya mosque carrying a mock coffin and a photograph of Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Kurds protested the timing of Hussein’s death—he was killed before hearing the majority of the counts against him. Human Rights groups also criticized the execution.

Param Preet Singh joins us now in our firehouse studio. She is the counsel for the International Justice Program of Human Rights Watch. We are also joined on the phone by Richard Falk, who is a distinguished professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Param Preet Singh, your response to the execution?

PARAM PREET SINGH: Well, Saddam Hussein’s execution follows a deeply flawed trial for crimes against humanity committed in Dujail. Our observers documented a number of severe procedural flaws within the trial, in terms of how the trial was conducted. First of all, a fundamental benchmark of a fair trial is independence of the judiciary from the executive and impartial judges conducting the case.

But there were a number of instances throughout the trial to indicate that this indeed wasn’t present in Saddam Hussein’s case. For example, in January of 2006, the first presiding judge resigned in protest over a public criticism by the then-minister of justice and others, that he was being too lenient on Saddam Hussein. Similarly, the second presiding judge in July of 2006 indicated that — he abruptly halted the defense case and told the defense attorneys that “no number of witnesses will convince me of your client’s innocence.”

And there were a number of political statements, as well. In July of 2006, the prime minister indicated that Saddam Hussein’s execution would follow shortly after his conviction for the crimes committed, but the verdict didn’t come out until November of 2006, which indicates that clearly this was an atmosphere of prejudgment of the outcome against him.

There were also other flaws. For example, Saddam Hussein didn’t have an opportunity to confront a lot of the witnesses who presented key evidence against him. Without the opportunity to confront, he had no — there was no possibility for him to test their credibility or test the type of evidence presented. Extensive use of anonymous witnesses, again, the same issue: He didn’t have a right to confront the witnesses and the evidence against him. Those are just a few of the procedural flaws that we documented.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, once the verdict came down in November, November 5th, what happened?

PARAM PREET SINGH: Well, the verdict came down on November 5th, but the judgment, the 300-page judgment, was not made available to defense attorneys until November 22nd. And under Iraqi law, defense attorneys have 30 days from the announcement of the verdict to launch an appeal. But, of course, they didn’t get the judgment until two weeks later, so they had essentially less than three weeks to review a complex 300-page judgment and present arguments.

Those submissions were given, I guess, in December 5th of 2006. And the appeals chamber reviewed their submissions and the 300-page judgment, and on December 26 indicated that it confirmed the death sentence and the verdict. In less than three weeks it was able to review the judgment, the 300-page judgment, and the submissions of the defense, which, I think, it illustrates that the appeals process is — appears to be even more unfair than the actual trial.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has happened to the other two people who were tried, found guilty, sentenced to death, as well: the judge, as well as Saddam Hussein’s brother-in-law, al-Tikriti?

PARAM PREET SINGH: It’s my understanding that their execution will take place on a — I mean, the execution against them was also confirmed. The verdict against them was confirmed. And it’s my understanding that they’ll be executed at a later date.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Richard Falk, your assessment of the trial, the verdict? And then I’d like to go into the issue of the timing of this verdict. Welcome to Democracy Now!

RICHARD FALK: Well, my [inaudible] echoes that of your other guest, in the sense that, from the beginning, the trial was deeply flawed, and the flaws, in a sense, distracted one from the substantive issues engaged by Saddam Hussein’s behavior while he had been a leader. And the execution, its manner, the fact of not only carrying out a death penalty at a time when most liberal democracies have repudiated that as an option for the state and doing it in a particularly horrifying manner, has completely eclipsed the criminality of Saddam Hussein’s period of brutal rule. And I think in a way that’s the greatest cost, aside from the public relations catastrophe for the United States and the current Iraqi leadership that’s associated with the way in which this execution was carried out.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about the timing and what it meant. And can you talk about the U.S. role? I mean, he was killed in Iraqi custody, though that only happened in the last hours before he was executed, the transfer.

RICHARD FALK: Yes, precisely. As far as we know — it is to some extent based on circumstantial evidence — the U.S. orchestrated the whole process and was very intent on accelerating both the reaching of judgment and now the announcement of the process that culminated in this execution. The timing of the verdict seemed connected with the American November elections. The timing now seems clearly connected with both the hope to divert attention from passing the 3,000-death threshold, as well as — and I think this is more important — creating a possibility for President Bush to contend that this is — that the United States is making progress in the Iraq War and that all that is required to achieve the goals that he has set some years ago is the patience of the American people and the support of Congress when he unfurls this new turn in American policy, which is expected to include the recommendation of — or the decision to send an additional 20,000 to 30,000 American troops to Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, The New York Times had a front-page piece yesterday, on January 1st, saying that the U.S. felt that Iraq was rushing the execution. You’re making the opposite case in a piece you wrote, “The Flawed Execution of Saddam Hussein,” that the U.S. was trying to speed it up.

RICHARD FALK: Well, yes. It may be that at the very last moment, because it became so clear that this was going to be a very ugly, ugly way of handling the execution, that there was an attempt to make it conform at least to Iraqi internal law, which had, as far as we know, required that no execution be carried out during an Islamic holiday, and the Saturday when Saddam Hussein was executed was the first day of the Eid holiday, which is the most sacred day in the Islamic liturgical calendar and a holiday that is supposedly dedicated to the ethical theme of forgiveness.

And beyond that, there was clearly the sense that the execution should be carried out in a manner that doesn’t deepen the sense that this is an incident in internal sectarian strife within Iraq, rather than a matter of rendering justice. So I think the people in Iraq got very nervous. The American handlers of the policy surrounding Saddam Hussein got very nervous at the very last stage, when they saw what the Iraqi leadership planned to do with this event associated with the execution.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Richard Falk. He is distinguished visiting professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. We’re also talking to Param Preet Singh, who is with Human Rights Watch, which has condemned the execution of Saddam Hussein. When we come back from break, we’ll be talking with a Kurdish surgeon about his response to the killing. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We are joined, in addition to Param Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch and Dr. Richard Falk, now at the University of California, Santa Barbara, we’re joined by Najmaldin Karim. He is on the phone with us, president of the Washington Kurdish Institute. He wrote a piece in The New York Times on Saturday. It was called “Justice, But No Reckoning.” We welcome you to Democracy Now!

NAJMALDIN KARIM: Thank you. Glad to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the execution?

NAJMALDIN KARIM: My response is just like the op-ed piece. Most of the people in Kurdistan are really deeply disappointed by the timing of the execution. Saddam was going through the trial for his genocidal campaign, which he named Anfal, and that trial was starting to go. And it was very important for the victims and their families for that trial to come to conclusion.

For us, as Kurds, going through these trials, the Anfal campaign, the massacre of the Shias in the south in 1991, the killing of the Barzanis or the use of chemical weapons, is not about revenge. It’s about coming to a conclusion. Why did Saddam do this? Who helped him? Who were his accomplices in committing these crimes? And I think he took all of those answers with him, and we probably will never know.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think he was tried on this one issue in Dujail, the killing of the Shia there in 1982, without being tried for these other crimes, Dr. Falk?

RICHARD FALK: A possible explanation is that this incident was clearly detachable from American complicity with the regime of Saddam Hussein and the period when the worst offenses occurred under his rule. And it was a very unprecedented procedure to separate the crimes of someone who is charged with sustaining a criminal regime during a period of political leadership.

If one thinks back to the Pinochet trial or the Milosevic trial, much less the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, it was taken for granted that the whole package of alleged criminality would be addressed in a single unified trial. And that makes political, moral and legal sense, as the main purpose of such trials is not the punishment of the defendant, but, really, the political education of the society and the wider global public, in the hope that such an exposure of criminality will be a warning to the people and to future leaders of their accountability for crimes of state.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Karim, in your piece, you wrote about President Ford in 1975. Today, a funeral for him is being held in Washington, D.C., at the National Cathedral. Can you elaborate?

NAJMALDIN KARIM: Well, first, let me say that President Ford is revered by the people in this country, particularly in his late years, for what he did as far as the healing and all that. But it was during 1975, when Henry Kissinger was secretary of state and there was a Kurdish resistance against the Baathist regime in Iraq, at that time Saddam Hussein was the vice president but he was really the de facto president. And the United States at the time was helping the Kurds, and there was a covert operation where the Kurds were getting help from the United States. And then, the Shah of Iran decided that he will make a deal with Saddam Hussein. And at that time, Kissinger was obviously the person who was running the foreign policy of this country, and it was during the Ford administration. So that is really where Ford’s name comes in. And when Kissinger was asked why did he cut the aid to the Kurds, and his answer was “Covert operation is not missionary work,” if I’m quoting him correctly, but that’s basically what he said. And as a result of that, 250,000 refugees went into Iran, and I was one of those. And many, many more returned to Iraq, and a lot of those were deported into the southern deserts, and thousands of them were killed, and we still don’t know what happened to them.

AMY GOODMAN: You feel this point in 1975 was the worst?

NAJMALDIN KARIM: I believe that was the beginning, because it was that agreement between Saddam Hussein and the shah of Iran that probably led to the other things that happened afterwards because it was during that agreement that Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran that probably led to the other things that happened afterwards, because it was during that agreement that Saddam Hussein gave up Iraqi territory to the Shah of Iran.

And in 1979, when he saw that the Shah was overthrown and Khomeini had come to power, the Iranian regime was weak, he thought, and it was the time of the hostage crisis, when they took American hostages. So he took advantage of that moment to come back and tear that agreement on television — this is Saddam Hussein — and attacked Iran, thinking that Iran is weak and he will regain the territory that he had given to the Shah of Iran in the 1975 agreement. But, of course, that war with Iran lasted eight years, and as a result of that, Iraq went bankrupt, and it was that bankruptcy and the need for money that made Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait.

So, if you look at it, really a series of blunders and aggressions by Saddam Hussein really resulted from him giving up Iraqi territory to the Shah of Iran, which he felt that he will get back, and led to these other military adventures and then his genocidal campaign against the Kurds, invasion of Kuwait, killing of the Shias, and etc.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Karim, among those who will be eulogizing President Ford today at the National Cathedral are Henry Kissinger and also former President George H.W. Bush. What about the role of the Reagan-Bush years with Saddam Hussein?

NAJMALDIN KARIM: Well, as we all know now that it was in 1983 when President Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to establish relations with Baghdad — with Saddam Hussein’s regime, and it was the support of the Reagan administration to Saddam. And it was during that time when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds and carried out the genocidal Anfal campaign. Even though this was known in this country and there were hearings in the United States Senate about this and imposing sanctions on Iraq, yet the Reagan administration kept defending its policies towards Iraq.

And in 1990, on exactly on June 15, there was a hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when Bush was president, and that hearing was about imposing sanctions at the time the United States was giving hundreds of millions of dollars in credit to Iraq, and this was June 15, just about six weeks prior to the invasion of Kuwait, when the Bush administration defended its relationship with Iraq and described Saddam’s influence in the region as being a moderating influence against, particularly, the Iranian aggression.

So, and then after the invasion of Kuwait and then the first Gulf War, President Bush called for the Iraqi people to rise up and get rid of the dictator. And when they did so, instead of protecting them, actually the Bush administration allowed Saddam Hussein to fly his helicopters, and it was those helicopters that massacred the Kurds and the Shias in 1991.

So, if you look back at it, you know, there is complicity. At least, at the minimum, they looked the other way when they knew Saddam was committing these atrocities and committing genocide against the people of Kurdistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Najmaldin Karim, I want to thank you very much for being with us, president of the Washington Kurdish Institute, a surgeon here now in the United States. In a minute, we’re going to go to Professor John Collins at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, who did some media analysis of CNN this weekend in the coverage of the execution. But before we do that, I wanted to turn back to Param Preet Singh to ask you about the possibility now, what it means when Saddam Hussein has been executed, yet these trials of his involvement in these other killings have not been carried out.

PARAM PREET SINGH: Well, I think it’s important to remember that the Anfal trial — that was a trial that was being conducted at the time of his execution — will continue. There are six other defendants against whom the prosecution will present evidence, and the defense will have an opportunity to rebut that evidence. So, of course, there are secrets about the Anfal campaign that Saddam Hussein will take with him to his grave. But the evidence that will come out in that trial could shed some light, in terms of how the crimes were committed, who was involved, how the victims were chosen, etc. So, I mean, there is still an opportunity there for the victims of these crimes to see some justice. It certainly wouldn’t be the same had Saddam Hussein lived to stand trial.

AMY GOODMAN: And why do you think they didn’t do these trials before he was killed?

PARAM PREET SINGH: I can’t speculate on the thinking of the Iraqi government in terms of why they decided to, first of all, go forward with the Dujail case, as opposed to the Anfal case, which, although the killings in Dujail are horrific, the Anfal case involved the killing of up to 100,000 Kurds in northern Iraq. So in terms of why they decided to move ahead with one case over the other, it’s not clear.

In terms of the decision to execute him before his role was fully explored in other crimes, again, I mean, I can’t speculate on why the Iraqi government decided to do what they did. It most likely, you know — they had a conviction, and they wanted to put in place the sentence as quickly as possible, just for the sake of making sure that there was at least some justice done for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to turn now to Professor John Collins at St. Lawrence University, upstate New York, who wrote a piece for Electronic Iraq called “The Low Profile: CNN and New York Times Execute a Denial of History.” Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHN COLLINS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you evaluate the media coverage of the execution of Saddam Hussein here in the United States?

JOHN COLLINS: Sure. Certainly CNN, I think, needs to get some attention here. I turned on CNN’s broadcast on the night of the execution, as I’m sure a lot of people did, and I was immediately struck by the fact that the whole event was being very carefully framed in order to kind of facilitate a denial of the historical relationship between Saddam Hussein and the U.S. government.

The entire focus of the broadcast — and this was the Anderson Cooper program on CNN — the entire focus was on Saddam Hussein as an individual, and the images that were being looped on the screen, sort of over Anderson Cooper’s voice and the voices of the guests, were obviously selected for their value in pushing that storyline forward. So, we saw, for example, images of Saddam Hussein brandishing a sword, firing a gun, laughing sort of like a cartoon villain, being checked for lice by U.S. military doctors, and so forth.

And for me, the most obvious absence there was the photo and the video of this Donald Rumsfeld visit to Saddam in December 1983, at a time when the U.S. government was working very hard to strengthen its ties with Baghdad. And that image of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein is not a random image. It’s a very crucial piece of the history of that regime, a piece that many Americans, I think, may not be aware of. And it’s all the more important given Rumsfeld’s subsequent and current role during the current Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, Professor Collins, I think it was CNN that was one of the first to show that videotape on air, the actual videotape in 1983-1984 of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, and questioning Rumsfeld about it.

JOHN COLLINS: Right. And that’s why it’s all the more so strange to me that CNN would have chosen, at this point, at the moment of the execution, to frame the issue in a way that shielded its viewers in that moment from any reference to past U.S. support for Saddam and his actions.

And I think we saw a little bit something kind of similar in The New York Times the following morning in the front-page obituary in the Times, which was a long piece, over 5,000 words, and it certainly did a better job than CNN, in terms of providing some historical context. It did mention briefly that the U.S. chose to back Iraq in its war with Iran during the 1980s. But the vast majority of the obituary portrayed the U.S. as a consistent opponent of Saddam, which is to say that it leaned heavily toward the post-1990 piece of the story.

And I think what we have to keep in mind here is that the history of this regime is a long and complicated history, like anything in international politics. It’s built on a web of relationships, which bring with them webs of responsibility. And I think that, as Americans, we have an ethical responsibility to confront the role that we’ve played in that story, and certainly the news media have a responsibility to give us as detailed a history as possible, so that we can make informed decisions about policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor John Collins, you also write about New York Times coverage of Saddam Hussein’s reign.


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about that?

JOHN COLLINS: Absolutely. I mean, I think the obituary on the front page was particularly noteworthy, because it played on a lot of the kinds of, I guess, stereotypes that we’ve become very used to when America’s enemies are discussed in the mainstream media. So there were lots of anecdotes in the Times obituary about Saddam’s paranoia, his megalomania, his sadism, and so forth. And I think the overall effect of that piece was to confirm to the readers of the Times that, yes, this man really was evil. But that just raises the question of why we ever allied ourselves with him to begin with. And the Times could have done a much better job of exploring that issue at the moment of his execution.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Professor Richard Falk, President Bush at Crawford, praising Saddam’s execution as, quote, “the kind of justice he denied victims of his brutal regime. Fair trials were unimaginable under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule,” said Bush. He said, “It’s a testament to the Iraqi people’s resolve to move forward after decades of oppression, that despite his terrible crimes, Saddam Hussein received a fair trial. This would not have been possible without the Iraqi people’s determination to create a society governed by the rule of law.” That sentiment of a fair trial was underscored by, well, formerly Democrat, but now independent Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman on CNN, talking about the fact that Saddam Hussein got a fair trial. Professor Falk?

RICHARD FALK: Well, I can hardly imagine a more Orwellian description of the actual trial. And to hear those words juxtaposed with the reality that we’ve been discussing this past hour suggests either the extreme detachment of President Bush from the notion of what a fair trial constitutes or a deliberate confusion of what happened with what the American people are being told happened by our leadership and, as Professor Collins suggested, by the most supposedly reliable mainstream media. So, it’s part of spinning an event in such a distorted and deformed manner as to really commit a kind of crime on the language itself and on the seriousness of the events that were taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us: Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, now visiting distinguished professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, teaching in the Global Studies Department; Param Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch; and Professor John Collins of St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.

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