Monday, January 08, 2007


‘Tried in His Absence’

So, at last Mr Blair has been forced into condemning Saddam Hussein’s execution, noticing the biggest news story in the world last week after everyone else in the world*. Thinking about that execution, the thing that most shocks me about it still seems to have had little airtime. While there’s been endless argument about the way it happened or whether it should have happened at all, what really appalled me was when it happened. That’s not as arcane as it sounds, and nothing to do with the festive season. It’s to do with the obscene farce of his ‘continuing’ trial.

Even aside from the principle of not committing judicial murder, the practical issue of not turning him into a martyr, and the shameful way the execution itself was carried out, what shocks me is that the Iraqi government thinks it’s fine to execute someone and then carry on trying him ‘in his absence’. It’s a phrase I’ve heard used by several of their spokespeople in the last week.

If someone escapes from justice, say by fleeing the country, then trying them in their absence is perfectly reasonable. If the state has them securely locked up, then deliberately prevents him answering the charges in the most final way possible, ‘trying him in his absence’ becomes a sick joke. He hasn’t absconded; it’s the government itself that has made him absent, in a pretty permanent sort of way. Any claims of a fair trial once he’s already been found him guilty and killed are going to be met with stark disbelief.

Like the conduct of the execution, this can only help those who wish to portray a mass-murdering dictator as a victim. It’s not just morally indefensible, but crassly stupid, too. Keep him in the dock being faced by the evidence of all his crimes, again and again, and he could bluster and grandstand all he liked but would still sink beneath the weight of his victims. Pretend to put him on show trial when you’ve hanged him so he can’t answer back, and everyone minded to will smell a rat.

If a state has someone in custody, and in the middle of a judicial process, and kills them anyway, the trial should stop. It stands to reason that, by killing someone, the state gives up its moral right to continue questioning them in court.

Midday update: Though the airwaves may not have considered this issue much, perhaps the diplomatic channels have been buzzing since I wrote this piece last night. The Iraqi High Tribunal has now dismissed all charges against Saddam Hussein, though the genocide trial of six co-defendants resumes. Let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake.

*The Prime Minister (and, a few hours before him, the Prime-Minister-in-Waiting-and-Waiting-and-Sulking-and-More-Waiting) really has no excuse. It doesn’t take a week for orders to come from Washington by boat nowadays; there’s the Morse telegraph and everything.

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