Juan Cole: Iraqis Should Be Leary About Putting Saddam on Trial in Iraq (And So Should We)
Historian Juan Cole, in the course of an interview published in the Ann Arbor News (Dec. 21, 2003)
Q: What concerns do you have about the suggestions of putting Saddam Hussein on trial?
A: There are several. The Bush administration and Iraqi interim Governing Council both seem to think it's a good idea to try him in Iraq, and I understand why. But one wonders at what cost this will come. A lot of Sunni Muslims in Iraq fear the fall of the government because it will place them in the vast minority to Shiites who were persecuted by Saddam.
Any trial is going to cover his acts of genocide against the Kurds in the late 1980s and Shiites following the first Gulf War of the early '90s. Spending months on these kind of investigations has the potential for provoking ethnic violence.
Q: What are other potential consequences of putting Saddam on trial?
A: I believe giving Saddam Hussein a stage or platform in Iraq through a trial is a bad idea because he's going to be defiant and still has Fedayeen and a loyal base active in the country. There also is the potential that Saddam may find ways to underline U.S. complicity in the atrocities, which could make it difficult to maintain support for the occupation forces.
Q: The atrocities you mentioned that are attributed to Saddam are what we know about. Is there a danger that such trials would reveal more that we don't know about?
A: Diplomatic historians say there are no secrets if you know where to look. We already know a great deal about the U.S. government's [complicity] with Saddam Hussein and his actions. There could be more.
Q: Would he focus on that compliance to mount a defense?
A: I don't know that he would. It certainly would hurt his stature in the Middle East and Arab world to make himself look like an agent of the CIA, so he may not want to. But when he can bring that information to light in self defense, I believe he could.
Q: International human rights organizations have been collecting data on Saddam's brutal regime for decades. With so much documentation, what kind of defense could he mount?
A: What we have seen in the cases of those dictators who have been tried for war crimes in the past is that they are impertinent. They blame subordinates, say things got out of hand and blame the victims. He's already been quoted as saying the bodies of those found in mass graves throughout the country belonged to thieves and traitors.
Q: Is it possible for him to get a fair trial?
A: That's another issue. One of the persons who is calling for a war crimes tribunal in Iraq is Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, current president of the interim Governing Council. Sixty-three members of his family were killed by Saddam Hussein. I'm willing to concede that the man is an upright man, but I don't know if saints exist to that extent in the world where he has no sense of vindictiveness about this. That's a problem that a lot of the people involved in this have talked about, and for those reasons I really think it is important that any trial occurs in The Hague.
Q: Are there other reasons why any trial should be conducted by the existing format of international war crimes tribunals?
A: There has never been such a tribunal in Iraq before. It's being created from scratch, most of the judges with long experience in Iraq are Baathists and there's no constitution in Iraq. Under what statutes can he be tried?
Q: Does it matter if he gets a fair trial?
A: I think it does matter. First, Saddam still has supporters, and to satisfy those supporters, it's important that any trial is conducted through a fair process. Otherwise, it could be construed that he was treated unfairly.
I also think it's important for Iraq. If there is going to be a new Iraq, it must be founded on the principles of law and fairness. It would not [. . .] bode well that the country's first act would be to railroad someone even as despised as Saddam Hussein.
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