Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Revenge and Brutality Masquerading as Justice

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MSNBC is reporting that Iraqi officials have arrested the man responsible for making a video of Saddam Hussein's execution with a cell phone.

An official in the Iraqi prime minister’s office told NBC News on Wednesday that the person who made the mobile phone video of Saddam Hussein's execution has been taken into custody.

"The person who filmed the execution process has been arrested. ... Now he is under interrogation about the goals of his filming," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He was arrested by Iraqi forces."
Al-Arabiya television reported that the person under arrest is one of the guards who was a member of the execution team, according to an MSNBC translator. The information could not be immediately verified.

BBC News' World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, writes about the ambivalent feelings many Iraqis have about the execution. Obviously, there is relief and satisfaction; but there is also shock, because the circumstances surrounding the execution and the way it was conducted evoke memories of the past under the rule of the very man who had just been hung:

There was no sound on the tape, and it ended at the point where the executioners put the rope around his neck.

It all seemed weirdly calm and dignified.

Not so. One of the witnesses managed to get a mobile phone into the execution chamber, and recorded the entire event, from the time when Saddam is brought into the chamber, his hands and feet shackled, to the moment when his body is hanging lifeless at the end of the rope.

It is shocking, of course. But the most shocking thing about it is the sound.

Far from being a quiet and dignified business, the new video shows that several of the witnesses taunted Saddam during the last seconds of his life, chanted the name of one of his many enemies, and told him he was going to hell.

Altogether, the execution as we now see it is shown to be an ugly, degrading business, which is more reminiscent of a public hanging in the 18th Century than a considered act of 21st Century official justice.

The key passage on the video-tape comes after the official version was cut off.

As Saddam stands there on the trapdoor, with the noose being tightened around his neck by one of the four executioners, their faces covered by balaclavas, the shouting starts up among the group of official witnesses.

At first you can hear a Shia version of an Islamic prayer being called out.

Saddam Hussein was, of course, a Sunni Muslim, and all this was unquestionably intended as a sectarian insult.

Then the same voice starts calling out the name of the leading Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, the formal leader of the Mehdi Army, was an open enemy of Saddam.

Saddam is not intimidated by any of this, and repeats Moqtada Sadr's name disdainfully, as if to say he doesn't count for very much.

Then his gruff, rasping voice can be heard saying to the onlookers "Is this manly behaviour?"

But someone calls out "You're going to hell."

One of the witnesses, concerned about all this, says "Keep quiet - he's just about to die."

Saddam Hussein scarcely has an instant to collect his thoughts. He starts to mutter a prayer, but just as he speaks the name Muhammad, the chief hangman pulls the lever and the trapdoor opens.

With terrible, shocking force, Saddam's body plunges into the drop.

His death must have been virtually instantaneous.

The next image shows him hanging, clearly dead.

Even the onlookers sound shocked as they chant their prayers.

Walking round in Baghdad this evening, as people hurried home in the black-out to celebrate their New Year's Eve in the security of their own homes, it seemed that everyone knew all about the new video.

The people I spoke to, who seemed to be Sunni Muslims, were shocked by it.

They also appeared to be distinctly nervous that the video would sharpen the already serious sectarian divide here.

Under Saddam Hussein, prisoners were regularly taunted and mistreated in their last hours. For many of them, death must have come as a relief.

But the most disturbing thing about the new video of Saddam's execution for crimes precisely like this, is that it is all much too reminiscent of what used to happen here.

It is going to be increasingly difficult for the government of Nouri Maliki to convince Sunni Arabs here that Saddam's execution was not merely an act of retaliation.

In a separate piece, BBC News has a roundup of commentary on the execution from press representatives in the region. Since newspapers and other media anywhere reflect the views of their readership -- at least in a general sense -- it's reasonable to conclude that putting Saddam to death at this time, and in this manner, is going to create far more problems than it will resolve.

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