After a long career in public service, Saddam Hussein has gotten what may be his final opportunity to do his country some good. He is rudely refusing to cooperate in his own show trial. And he is getting some help from America.
Saddam wont concede the legal authority of the American occupation of Iraq and also, therefore, of his American-sponsored (and American-censored) trial. When the judge agreed to tell the Americans about his complaints of mistreatment by American guards, he barked, I dont want you to tell them. I want you to order them! They are in our country. You are an Iraqi. They are foreigners, and occupiers and invaders, so you must condemn them. Otherwise, you are a small boat rocking in the waves.
This outburst was so powerful that the closed-circuit television relay, controlled by the Americans, was cut off until Saddam had finished. This was an awkward moment for an Iraqi declaration of independence! Lets hope that in the unlikely event that President Bush and Vice President Cheney are ever put in the dock by the occupying army of a foreign power, they show similar courage on our behalf, even if their real motive is only to save their own skins.
Two of Americas leading liberal newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, described Saddams behavior as bluster, as if he should have conducted himself more decorously in the court. The right-wing Washington Times was especially indignant that former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark had joined his defense team.
Like Jane Fonda, Clark can always be relied on to light up the switchboards of talk radio by taking unpopular stands; unlike Fonda, he has persisted. For years he has tried to call attention to the deadly impact of U.S.-enforced sanctions against Iraq when few were listening. It didnt start with the second Bush administration; for that matter, it didnt end with the first Bush administration. Clark was saying it during the Clinton years, but even Clinton-haters wouldnt listen to him.
Clark isnt partisan; he is quixotically principled. And brave. Two lawyers representing Saddams co-defendants have already been murdered (speaking of terrorism), and others have fled the country. Thats why Clark deserves respect when he goes to Iraq in person so Saddam can get a fair trial.
Even supporters of the war should value him; ironically, Clark could help the prosecution more than he helps Saddam. A weak defense would only confirm the impression that this is a show trial or judicial lynching, which is the last thing the Bush administration should want; if Saddam is permitted to have something like a fair trial, including a reasonable chance of acquittal, the procedure will be more likely to appear to be on the level.
But some of the hawks want not only the substance of a show trial, but its appearance as well. Verdict first, trial afterward, as Lewis Carroll puts it. Oh, sure, youll get a fair trial, says the corrupt sheriff in the movie One-Eyed Jacks. Then Im gonna hang you myself.
The purpose of a fair trial is not merely to protect the defendant; its to assure the public that the truth has been honestly ascertained, that the state prosecution has fully made its case against real opposition. If an indictment means an automatic conviction, the states power becomes both absolute and arbitrary. By protecting defendants, we protect ourselves.
Even some Iraqis who hate Saddam and welcome U.S. efforts to implant democracy appreciate that the new governments legitimacy depends heavily on giving the cruel tyrant a proper trial. The problem is that Saddams only real defense may be that the new government has no legitimacy.
Yes, Saddam is a fine one to appeal to punctilious legality; but the whole idea of the rule of law, after all, is its impartial and universal application, even to the most notorious criminals. Few doubt that he committed the crimes he is charged with; but many doubt that the American occupiers and their Iraqi clients have the legal standing to convict him.
This is where Ramsey Clark comes in. As the former top lawyer in the United States, who has made his international reputation for integrity by repeatedly challenging his own government, his voice will resound around the world if he makes a strong case that the trial of Saddam Hussein has no sound legal foundation.
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