Iraqi Justice

SF Gate — Seeing ex-dictator in court turns Iraqis into lawyers

Some rejoiced, others cursed. From street to store to workplace to home, Iraqis were transfixed by the televised specter of their former dictator under the thumb of justice. Yet what nearly everyone seemed to agree was that Iraq’s “mother of all court appearances” should not just deliver the end — punishment for Saddam Hussein — but also the means: that it be arrived at fairly and justly.

As if Iraq had just reawakened as a country of courtroom critics, the talk everywhere in Baghdad Thursday afternoon was about the trial — who, why, when and by what right? For people such as Hussam Hassan, standards had become as exacting as in any “Law and Order” episode. “Why don’t they bring lawyers to defend Saddam Hussein into court?” he asked while stacking a new delivery of frozen pizzas in a grocery he co-owns in the middle-class Mansour district of Baghdad. “This is his right — anyone in court would want a lawyer,” he said. “Anyone who goes to a police station should have that.”

Hassan’s partner, Abbas Ali, watching from behind the counter, said he disapproved of the judge, a man in his 30s who acted with cool authority throughout yet whose youth ran counter to the Iraqi tradition that authority is commensurate with seniority. “He is very young,” Ali said, frowning. “He wants Saddam to sign accusation papers, who is so much older than him.”

Interviews across Baghdad showed that Hussein’s trial offers potential pitfalls for the new Iraqi government’s public relations as well as huge possible strides for democratic culture. “Everyone knows that Saddam Hussein committed crimes against the Iraqi people, and his hands are covered with the blood of the Shia, and we are glad that this is being revealed,” said Shiite Ayatollah Imad Aldeen al-Awadi, director of the International Humanitarian Committee for Prisoners and Missing Persons, a local group of relatives of human-rights victims of the dictatorship. Al-Awadi said he had been imprisoned for 10 years by Hussein on rebellion charges, and his brother was executed for the same cause. However, he said, revenge takes a back seat to larger issues: “It depends on the results. What we hope is that Saddam Hussein will be judged by a court that is under an elected government. This will make it more legitimate.”

If these interviews are an accurate reflection of Iraqi society–always a big “if” in these man on the street stories–it is very encouraging, indeed. An Iraqi justice system will certainly be decidedly different from ours, owing to varying cultural norms. An appreciation for the virtues of due process is good to see, though.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Here’s the stock distressed Iraqi man-on-the-street interview:

    “Is this the democracy the Americans promised us?!”

    This answer applies to everything from sporadic electricity to insurgent attacks to who should be the local dog (Kuwati) catcher