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Saddam Hussein’s Death Sentence Will Be Appealed

November 6, 2006 at 6:50 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: John Burns, every account of yesterday’s verdict and sentence referred to a divided response. Has that continued today?

JOHN BURNS, Baghdad Bureau Chief, New York Times: It has, but I have to say in a pretty tamped-down, muted fashion. The curfew is still in place. The curfew for motor vehicles, which has been in place for 48 hours, will be lifted at 6:00 a.m. Baghdad time on Tuesday morning. That’s about five hours away now in Baghdad, and we’ll probably see then the full extent of the fury and, indeed, the celebration that this death sentence has occasioned.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about outside of Baghdad and the rest of the country? Has there been much of a response there?

JOHN BURNS: Well, the curfew extended to the places where you might have expected most trouble, that is to say, the principal centers of Sunni population, Baghdad, of course, Mosul, Kirkuk, and area north and east of Baghdad, Diyala, which has the most mixed Sunni-Shiite population, which has become one of the most restive places in the country.

But so far what we’ve seen is demonstrations, a few hundred people raising Saddam’s portrait. Elsewhere, a few hundred, maybe a few thousand people in Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad celebrating. But it’s all been pretty low-key.

Saddam's reaction to the sentencing

John Burns
The New York Times
It was a moment in Iraq's history...that any reporter would have wished to see, especially one who, like myself and so many others, had endured their own experience of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: John, you were in the courtroom yesterday. Describe for us what it was like.

JOHN BURNS: Well, it's an overworked phrase, "banality of evil," but to see Saddam Hussein answering the court for what he must have known was going to be a death sentence, a shrunken figure, exhausted, heavy bags under his eyes, and then explode in frustration and anger the moment that he heard those words, "We have decided to condemn the defendant, Saddam Hussein al-Majid, to death by hanging."

And he continued for five minutes, trying to shout the judge down, raging, if you will, against the dying of light, I would say. There were tears from the gallery, the upper gallery, where some members of the present government, Shiites, the population who were the principal victims of Saddam's repression, where the judge intervened pretty quickly to say -- and there were government ministers up there -- "If there's any repetition of this, I'll have you thrown out."

There was the expulsion of Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general of the United States, when the judge exploded in anger at the deposition that Ramsey Clark had forwarded, in which he described the court -- and it all depends on the translation you make from Arabic -- but either as a joke or as ridiculous. And the judge said, "If there's anybody ridiculous that's here, it's you." And then he said, in English, "Out, out, out," and five bailiffs then escorted Mr. Clark out of the court.

It was a moment in Iraq's history, of course, and one that any reporter would have wished to see, especially one who, like myself and so many others, had endured their own experience of Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the many years, 15 years or so, before the American capture of Baghdad.

The appeals procedure

John Burns
The New York Times
We're looking now at a possible execution of Saddam before the spring.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there will be an appeal. Tell us a little bit about how that process will unfold. And what happens to the trials, the other trials that had been expected for other humanitarian crimes that Saddam Hussein has been or could be charged with?

JOHN BURNS: Well, to deal first with the appeal and the technicalities, the appeal will formally begin -- it's automatic -- will begin in 30 days from the moment of sentence. The appeal court can then take as long as it likes. It's a nine-member appellate court. But that's likely, we think, from everything we hear, to be shorter than was expected, which is to say it could be done in a matter of a few short months.

And so we're looking now at a possible execution of Saddam before the spring. When the appellate court makes its decision -- assuming it upholds the sentence against Saddam, his half-brother, and the chief of the Revolutionary Court, who was also sentenced to death, Saddam's Revolutionary Court -- there is an automatic kick-in of a 30-day deadline to execution with one final, if you will, procedural obligation, and that is for the presidential council, the three-man presidential counsel, to confirm the sentence.

There's a potential difficulty there, because Talabani, the Kurdish president, objects in principle to the death penalty. I don't know if you can hear me now, but there are American jet aircraft flying very low over here as part of the, we think, curfew enforcement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, we can...

JOHN BURNS: ... on their after-burners over Baghdad.

JEFFREY BROWN: We can hear you, so go ahead.

JOHN BURNS: Can you hear that?

JEFFREY BROWN: We can hear the jets, but I think we can hear you, so go ahead.

Political hurry for the execution

John Burns
The New York Times
I think the political realities are that they will get through all of this, and they'll probably get through all of it quite quickly.

JOHN BURNS: That's fine. That's fine. They're rattling our windows. So there's a question, if Talabani exempts himself from a three-member panel, which has to decide unanimously, how they're going to get past that. But I think the political realities are that they will get through all of this, and they'll probably get through all of it quite quickly.

As for the other trials, there's been a big change here. A year ago, American and Iraqi officials, who play a large role in the management of this court, were saying that they expected -- in fact, they preferred -- that the major cases that are following on from the present one, that's to say the case involving the massacre of the Kurds in the late 1980s and the massacre of the Shiites in southern Iraq in 1991, involving hundreds of thousands of victims, that those cases would be completed before any execution took place.

Now, because of the worsening state of the war and a gathering feeling in the present government of Iraq -- that's to say the Shiite-led government of Iraq -- that Saddam, as a symbol, as a rallying symbol for the insurgency, needs to be removed, that has shifted.

And now there is talk of executing Saddam before either of those two trials is completed. One of them, the Anfal trial, the trial for the repression of the Kurds, has been under way now since August and is expected to last until next summer.

But court officials said immediately after yesterday's verdict -- and I thought it quite significant -- in a briefing for reporters in the courthouse that it would be no problem to strike Saddam as a defendant in the Anfal case, the case of the Kurdish massacre, and simply proceed with the case. So it seems to me that that's another bridge that has been crossed. They're not going to wait.

Ex-Ba'ath members may regain jobs

John Burns
The New York Times
There's no doubt that there was injustice done to thousands, many thousands of former officials of this Hussein government who were not themselves involved in crimes or repression.

JEFFREY BROWN: John, it was reported today that the Iraqi government may be about to propose the reinstatement of many Baath Party members to their old jobs. How is that being read there? Is there a connection to the outcome in the Saddam Hussein trial?

JOHN BURNS: Yes, I think there is. As a matter of fact, I think they had wanted to make that announcement before the verdict came in, but like so much else here, it got delayed.

That's the case of another case of justice delayed. There's no doubt that there was injustice done to thousands, many thousands of former officials of this Hussein government who were not themselves involved in crimes or repression.

And to make a serious beginning on reconciliations with the Sunni community, the Sunni minority community, who were the principal beneficiaries of Saddam's rule here, they're going to have to do that. It's a significant step. It should have been taken before and will make a lot of difference to, I would think, something on the order of 5,000 to 10,000 families who have been living on the edge of destitution as a result of this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. John Burns of the New York Times, thanks again.

JOHN BURNS: It's a pleasure.