(AP) – In a world sharply divided on Iraq since the U.S.-led war began in 2003, Saddam Hussein’s death sentence Sunday unleashed fears of fresh violence and new questions about the fairness and impartiality of the tribunal that ordered him to hang.
Underscoring the fault lines that split the international community and widened the divide between Muslims and Christians, Islamic leaders warned that the verdict could inflame those who revile the United States, undermining U.S. policy in the volatile Middle East and inspiring terrorists to strike.
“The hanging of Saddam Hussein will turn to hell for the Americans,” said Vitaya Wisethrat, a respected Muslim cleric in Thailand, where a bloody Islamic insurgency is raging in the country’s south. “The Saddam case is not a Muslim problem but the problem of America and its domestic politics,” he said. “The Americans are about to vote in a midterm election, so maybe Bush will use this case to tell the voters that Saddam is dead and that the Americans are safe. But actually the American people will be in more danger with the death of Saddam.”
Sunday’s verdict, which had been widely expected, was welcomed by key U.S. allies, who said Saddam got what he deserved for crimes against humanity committed during years of brutal dictatorship. “I welcome that Saddam Hussein and the other defendants have faced justice and have been held to account for their crimes,” British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said in a statement. “Appalling crimes were committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is right that those accused of such crimes against the Iraqi people should face Iraqi justice.”
Australia’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, called Saddam “an evil tyrant” and said the death sentence, which will be subject to an automatic appeal before he can be hanged, came as no surprise.
But Amnesty International questioned the fairness of the trial, and international legal experts said Saddam should be kept alive long enough to answer for other atrocities. Only then, they said, will Iraqis brutalized by years of his despotic rule see true justice done.
“The longer we can keep Saddam alive, the longer the tribunal can have to explore some of the other crimes involving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis,” said Sonya Sceats, an international law expert at the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank in London. “The problem really is that this tribunal has not shown itself to be fair and impartial, not only by international standards, but by Iraqi standards. There is significant evidence of political pressure,” she said.
Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Malaysian-based International Movement for a Just World, also voiced concerns that Saddam’s trial was flawed because it “violated many established norms of international jurisprudence, such as in the way the court was constituted and how the charges were brought against Saddam.” “But Saddam was undoubtedly a brutal dictator, and even though I wouldn’t subscribe to the death penalty, he deserves to be punished severely for the enormity of his crimes,” said Chandra, a well-known Muslim social commentator. Chandra said there was bound to be a violent reaction in Iraq to theverdict.
“We would expect a reaction from the resistance in Iraq, whether it is immediate or not, in the form of suicide bombings or other violence,” he said.
In Russia, the Kremlin-allied head of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, told Ekho Moskvy radio the sentence will deepen divisions in Iraq. But the official, Konstantin Kosachyov, said he doubted that Saddam would actually be executed. “A death sentence will apparently split Iraqi society even further,” Kosachyov said. “On the other hand, it seems to me that the death sentence against Saddam Hussein will probably not be carried out. It will be stopped one way or another, either by the president of Iraq or by other means. It is most of all a moral decision, retribution that modern Iraq is taking against Saddam’s regime.”
Some saw the verdict as intentionally timed to coincide with Tuesday’s pivotal midterm elections in the U.S. Congress, where Democrats are fighting to regain control. “The Bush administration, which has lost the trust of the American people, needs some sort of victory,” said Abbas Khalaf, Iraq’s ambassador to Russia during the Saddam era, denouncing the proceedings as “a purely political trial.”