Justice for Iraq's tyrant?

Imperfect justice. That's not a very satisfying conclusion to Saddam Hussein's crimes against humanity. But in a country that is itself a very imperfect democracy, the fact that this despot was held publicly accountable amounts to a significant measure of justice.

There's no uniform method of handling modern-day tyrants who fall from power, which shows just how tricky the process is. Leaders who grossly abuse human rights can find refuge in other countries (Uganda's Idi Amin). They can meet a quick end (the Ceausescus of Romania, executed after a speedy, secret military trial). They can come before an international tribunal (Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic), or pass away as free men at home (P.W. Botha, a pillar of South African apartheid).

Iraq's choice was highly unusual: to try its own despot in his own country before Iraqi judges (with US training). Mr. Hussein could have been put before an international tribunal abroad, or before a panel of international and domestic judges in Iraq. But the choice was made to keep the trial close to Iraqis in hopes of fostering a fair judicial system as well as reconciliation among Iraqis.

The trial fell far short of those goals. The verdict – death for Hussein and two codefendents for the killing of 148 men and boys from the town of Dujail – has only reinforced Iraqi divisions: joy and celebration from Shiites and Kurds oppressed by Hussein; cursing and protest from his Sunni supporters; and the fear of escalated sectarian violence.

Critics of the trial point to its flaws as hardly encouraging for a fledgling, democratic judicial system. It's true, the trial was marred by government pressure on judges, causing an impartial judge to resign; by denial of witnesses for the defense; by major security lapses, including the murder of three defense lawyers; and by courtroom chaos and antics.

But countries emerging from despotism don't come with legal systems ready for the white-glove test. It's worth remembering that this trial was not conducted under Islamic law. That this was public, watched on TV by many Iraqis. That the "Butcher of Baghdad" had to listen to his victims. And most important, the prosecution presented strong evidence, including death orders bearing Hussein's signature.

Iraq still has an opportunity to improve imperfect justice and to promote reconciliation. If the appeals panel to which this case is being referred decides to delay its review (and thus the execution), it can allow further – hopefully fairer – prosecution of Hussein on other cases and exposure of crimes that affected tens of thousands of Iraqis.

It could also drop the death sentence for one of life in prison. Many Iraqis may think that executing Hussein will provide a symbolic break from the past. But sanctioned killing complicates the moral choices they now face in ending the daily killings between sects. Executions may seem to square the account, but they put vengeance far ahead of reconciliation.

And it remains to be seen if Iraq's fragile democracy can bear the burden of executing Hussein. Sunnis are less aware of how much he repressed other groups. They see his death sentence as justice gone too far and may now have less stake in democracy.

In the conviction itself, though, justice was done – for now.

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