Wednesday, June 30, 2004

As in the surprise transfer of sovereignty Monday, the transfer of Saddam Hussein from U.S. to Iraqi custody was accomplished with minor ceremony belying its relevance. Iraqi courts now will initiate yet another milestone in the nation’s history: the genesis of a court system governed by the rule of law, not the whim of a dictator.

Yesterday, Saddam ceased being a prisoner of war and became a criminal defendant. Today, he will begin a process never afforded to his enemies: fair and open judicial proceedings. He will stand before a judge, hear the charges against him and begin a months-long process to determine his culpability and consequences for decades of brutality. The judicial system’s newly acquired prisoner — and 11 of his former henchmen, including former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and the dreaded Ali Hassan al-Majid, known simply as “Chemical Ali” — will serve as a stark warning against allowing Iraq’s newfound freedoms and budding democracy to devolve into its past.

Saddam’s trial, open and fair, will be a particularly impressive signal of change in a nation where court cases will now be determined by the facts of the case, not a predetermined edict. He will be judged by an independent tribunal, and not under the capricious protocols he established. As Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said yesterday, “Saddam Hussein will be under the legal control of Iraqi law.”

Under Saddam, trials were simple procedures where facts mattered less than connections. Under the interim government’s judiciary, the procedures are arduous, detailed and open to public scrutiny — from both local and international observers. And though the evidence is mountainous, the decision against Saddam is not predetermined.

Asked whether he believed Saddam deserved the death penalty, Iraq’s Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer said in a recent interview: “We are people of an Iraq that used to be when the trial starts, there’s already a precooked or prepared sentence in the pocket of the judge. We don’t want that to happen. We are different.” Mr. al-Yawer’s words signal optimism for an independent judiciary, one that will compile and weigh the facts rather than determine his fate before holding a fair trial.

Though there was some controversy as to whether or not to transfer custody of Saddam, it was absolutely the right choice. Saddam threatened America and the world, but he destroyed Iraq. He posed a threat to Americans, but his violence was real and constant to Iraqis. He bred fear in every corner of the nation; his violence was universal and comprehensive; and his evil was limitless.

The new Iraqi government understands, more than any other, the entirety of Saddam’s crimes. There are the obvious — genocide, torture and other crimes against humanity — but there is much more. He destroyed a nation, pocketed its wealth and retarded the economic and intellectual growth of its people. Saddam erected dozens of presidential palaces and monuments with funds that should have been used for food and medicine for his people, all while amassing billions in personal wealth and billions more for his partners in crime. Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Nakib grasped this entirety, announcing that Saddam will be tried not just “for killing the people of Iraq,” but also for “destroying infrastructure.” Both were significant and malicious crimes; both must be prosecuted.

American and coalition forces can and will continue to provide security efforts — lest he escape or be lynched — and provide every legal resource possible for the Iraqi courts. But the damage was done in Iraq; the trial and punishments are rightly accomplished there.

“Saddam used to torture people in each and every basement in Iraq,” Mr. al-Yawer said in a recent interview. Now, each and every Iraqi will have the opportunity to see those charges brought against him in a fair trial. No doubt many would like to see him returned to those basements, but the future of a free and stable Iraq demands that neither he, nor anyone else, return to those dark days.

His trial, his punishment and the conduct of the Iraqi tribunal will help inform the future status of the new Iraq as a nation governed by the rule of law, not the rule of one man.

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