Emad Mekay*

CAIRO, Nov 6 2006 (IPS) — Saddam Hussein doesn’t have many friends here, but the death sentence handed down Sunday against the former Iraqi president has invited accusations that the announcement was timed to influence the U.S. congressional elections set for Tuesday, only two days after the verdict.

A U.S.-backed Iraqi court sentenced Saddam Hussein to death for ordering the execution of 148 Shiite men in Dujail, Iraq in 1982. The Iraqi High Tribunal, created after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, sentenced two other defendants to death, four to prison and acquitted one.

Hussein’s case will be automatically appealed to the tribunal’s appellate chamber. The defence has 30 days to file any motions. A ruling is expected by mid-January.

President George W. Bush, whose Republican party is trailing the opposition Democrats in every poll, was quick to tout the verdict as evidence that his strategy of establishing the rule of law in Iraq was working.

“Today we witnessed a landmark event in the history of Iraq: Saddam Hussein was convicted and sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal,” Bush said at a campaign rally on Sunday. “Saddam Hussein’s trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people’s efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.”

Scott Horton, chair of the International Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association, who worked on Hussein’s trial, said there is little doubt that the death sentence was intentionally handed down on the eve of the mid-term elections.

“This entire process from beginning to end is being closely superintended by the United States,” he told IPS. “This whole process is funded by a 138-million-dollar grant from Congress and a large staff of people working out of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad called the ‘Regimes Crime Unit’.”

It is not the first time legal maneuvering in the case seems to have been scheduled for maximum benefit to the Bush administration. In August, the trial recessed only to reconvene on Sep. 11, the anniversary of the al Qaeda terror attacks on the United States.

Horton said Washington has especially tight control over the tribunal’s schedule.

“Access to the courtroom is controlled by the Americans, security is controlled by the Americans, and the Americans have custody over the defendants who must be produced before the trial can go forward, so whether they have the trial on day x or day y depends on the Americans giving their okay,” he said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow decried as “absolutely crazy” any notion that the end to Hussein’s nine-month trial was timed to produce positive news on the war two days before citizens here vote – although widespread dissatisfaction with the U.S. presence in Iraq has played a large role in the campaigning.

Still, it is uncertain that the announcement will give a significant boost to the Republicans this year, who are predicted to lose control over the 435-seat House of Representatives, and possibly the 100-seat Senate as well.

“There are so many ‘positive’ stories that have been wolf-cried and this has no resonance left,” said syndicated columnist Norman Solomon, author of the book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death”.

“But there is always a section of the U.S. public that can be bamboozled to some degree. They may feel that this sentence is a positive step,” he told IPS.

A nationwide Pew Research Centre survey released on Sunday in the U.S. found that the Democrats still hold a 48 percent to 40 lead among registered voters, and a modest lead of 47 percent to 43 percent among likely voters.

Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher with Egypt’s al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, told IPS that the timing of the verdict was questionable given the prominence of Iraq in the U.S. electoral campaigns, and that it puts the lie to Washington’s stated goal of spreading democracy in the Middle East.

“There are various legal grounds for doubting the fairness of the trial as repeatedly clarified by human rights groups,” said Rashwan. “The timing leaves little doubt that there is a clear political motivation behind the verdict. After all, the U.S. congressional elections are only one day away.”

Rashwan, who follows Iraqi affairs and is a frequent commentator on Arab TV channels, added that while the news might help the Republican Party in the U.S., it could not have been worse for Iraqis.

“This is a time when most Iraqis now acutely identify with ethnic and religious affiliations rather than with the general Iraqi identity. The verdict handed down by a Shiite court will be read within that context inside Iraq. It will and it is heightening internal divisions,” he added.

Analysts in the Mideast have also pointed to reports by international human rights groups that questioned the legality of the trial, which was often broadcast on Arab TV channels.

In September, U.N. legal experts concluded that the proceedings violated the right to a fair trial under international law. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention – which consisted of legal experts from Iran, Algeria, Paraguay, Spain and Hungary – spent more than two years collecting information and reviewing the case before making its decision.

The trial has also been marred by violence and intimidation. Two of Hussein’s defence lawyers were killed, and analysts here say that the United States government continued to fail to provide adequate security for the defence team.

During the trial, a relative of one of judges was killed, and the defence lawyers have been threatened to the extent that they said they could not safely participate in proceedings.

All of this is not lost on Arabs anxiously watching the unfolding events in neighbouring Iraq.

Here in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, doubts about the legality of the trial were rife. Columnist Mohammed Amin wrote in the liberal daily el-Wafd newspaper that the trial was a “farce”.

“The show is over. America may feel relieved now but the region will not enjoy comfort after Saddam’s execution at the hands of the Americans who occupied the land, abused women, scared the [Iraqi] people and executed their leaders.”

“They put him to trial on human rights abuses charges, while at the same time they themselves were violating human rights standards,” Amin added.

Other Arab media have had mixed reviews of the verdict, even including the al-Ahram newspaper, the largest daily in Egypt and which is controlled by the pro-U.S. regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

“The verdict imposes so many fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the trial, and the timing of the verdict,” the paper said in an editorial.

Most outlets in the Persian Gulf region, where the pro-Washington regime in Saudi Arabia exerts significant influence, have supported the verdict or avoided analysis of its significance and repercussions.

The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya channel’s website ran a colour piece on the sentencing that observed, “Saddam dined on rice and meat the night of the verdict”.

And the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, a major daily with close links to the Saudi royal family, published columns reminding readers of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities in Iraq.

“Saddam Hussein committed [crimes] that justify the verdict,” wrote Ghassan Sharbal in the Saudi-funded al-Hayat newspaper. “He left pain in every city and village and behind every window… It is impossible to find reasons to reduce the sentence.”

*With additional reporting from Aaron Glantz in San Francisco, California.


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