Salim Lone: Crimes of the Hanged Compete with the Hangman

By Salim Lone*

It was inevitable that the first head of state to be executed for crimes against humanity would be a Muslim – and that the execution would be under American occupation.

Saddam Hussein’s execution came after 16 years of merciless punishments inflicted on Iraq by the Anglo-American alliance following his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. From then on, many more crimes against humanity were committed by the alliance than by Saddam.  At least 600,000 children died under the terrible United Nations sanctions that stayed in place 12 years after the Iraqi army had been evicted from Kuwait.  Another 650,000 people had died in the current occupation by the middle of last year, according to the exhaustive Johns Hopkins University study. Occupation aside, Saddam was hanged by what is easily the world’s most brutal government. Iraq was not remotely as ruinous in Saddam’s time as it has been for the last four years under the US occupation.

For most Arabs and Muslims outside Iraq, and for many non-Muslims as well, Saddam Hussein had been a hero since the first Gulf war of 1991, hailed for being one of the very few leaders who dared to stand up to American might.  The dignified manner in which he confronted his death, his refusal to wear the hangman’s hood and his last words to his Shi’a taunters – “Is this how you show your bravery as Arab men?” – will cement Saddam’s standing as a martyr, a position he automatically rose to after having been executed by non-Muslims in war. 

He has now joined a pantheon of Muslim heroes who fought western invaders, among the first of whom was fellow Iraqi Salah-ud-din, the Kurd who successfully battled the Christians during the Crusades over Jerusalem.  Saddam’s support for Palestinian sovereignty was not geared merely to winning pan Arab support. 

Unlike Salah-ud-din, however, Saddam was a brutal tyrant.  Tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed under his reign.  Kuwait aside, he also started a war of aggression against Iran in which over a million people died. He deserved to be punished.  But not in this way, and not for the reasons given, the killing of 148 Shi’a in Dujail.

Saddam’s hanging has driven a dagger into the heart of Shi’a-Sunni relations not only in Iraq but worldwide. That the execution was carried out on Islam’s holiest day of Eid-ul-Adha, which marks God’s sparing of life, will be seen as a profound mocking of Islam and create even more anti-western embitterment.  The fury of hundreds of millions of Muslims who woke to celebrate the day and learnt instead of his hanging can be imagined.  The extremists’ acts which flow from this will serve only to feed the Islamophobia our world is brimming with. Where will it all end?

Any judicial execution by the state is a heinous crime. But Saddam’s hanging was a crime even if one believed in the death penalty, because he was sentenced to death without being allowed to defend himself. His trial was a mockery of justice that was condemned as a travesty by major human rights organizations including by Human Rights Watch, one of Saddam’s bitterest critics and the meticulous documenter of his crimes.  The Nazis who committed multiple genocides did a lot better at Nuremberg. 

Saddam was in fact hanged without having been legally convicted of an offense. His execution was nothing more than revenge killing by a highly sectarian regime.

This trial should have been used to heal the terrible wounds that have been inflicted on the Iraqi nation and on the world region by Saddam and by the current occupation.  The details of Saddam’s crimes against Shi’a, Sunnis and Kurds should have been presented by prosecutors in an unbiased court in a manner which most Iraqis would have found credible. The trail could have been a first step in building reconciliation and peace in Iraq, as for example was done in Mandela’s South Africa, whose apartheid rulers enslaved the entire nation and were guiltier of more crimes than Saddam. 

There was a reason why Saddam had to be executed with such unbecoming haste.  Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has little support from the rank and file Shi’a and is struggling for his political survival. He was desperate to swiftly hang Saddam in a bid to be taken seriously by even the Shi’a. He did not care what the Sunnis and others thought, or that it violated Iraqi law which forbids hanging during this Eid holiday.  He was also determined to move quickly to pre-empt discussion on the constitutional requirement that Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, who is opposed to capital punishment, agree to the execution.

With the outrage that has greeted the lightning speed and manner in which Saddam was dispatched to the gallows, the US is now ducking for cover by claiming that its pleas to prevent a hasty hanging “fell on deaf ears.” Never mind that the handed over Saddam to the Shi’a hangmen just before the execution, or that President Bush hailed the hanging as one of the great milestones of Iraq’s US-sponsored path to glory. In any event, it strains the imagination to believe that suddenly al-Maliki became more powerful than Bush.

In any event, it is the US which bears the responsibility for Saddam’s hanging, not only as the occupying power but for having specifically enacted during the occupation period the terms of the special court that tried him. The US also refused to allow a trial in an international tribunal of the kind that has tried Milosevic and other war criminals. 

With his hanging, the world will no longer learn more about the most compelling charges that Saddam was still to be tried for, the killing of tens of thousands of Kurds and the gassing at Halabja in the late 1980s.  The Kurds must be furious. But it was always suspected the US, which was complicit in Saddam’s crimes against humanity, would not allow those details to be aired.

The international broadcast media’s coverage of Saddam’s death was unbearably propagandistic and one-sided.  CNN correspondent in Iraq Aneesh Raman immediately hailed Saddam’s hanging “a rare success for al-Maliki.”  In virtually every broadcast on all the networks, there was no effort made to be even somewhat objective about Saddam’s history. He was portrayed as an evil man through and through, and there was no discussion of the role the US and the west played in his crimes. Nor was a word uttered about the irony in Saddam’s being hanged by occupiers and a gangster Shi’a regime who brought Iraq suffering unmatched even by his murderous tyranny. 

Amid the unrelieved vituperation that was being broadcast, there were no references to Saddam as the modernizer who made Iraq the Middle East’s most developed nation, with huge investments in health, education and infrastructure. Iraqis enjoyed a standard of living that was the region’s envy, thanks to an equitable sharing of wealth. Saddam also prevented sectarianism by building secularism in which women were able to flourish, and in Baghdad in 2003, I found large groups of Shi’a and Sunni living together comfortably. 

Such coverage, beamed around the world, further ensured that Saddam Hussein will be revered as a heroic Muslim martyr, rather than reviled as a murderous tyrant.

-Salim Lone was the spokesman for the UN mission in Iraq right after the 2003 war. He contributed this article to the Palestine Chronicle (

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