Not since the trials of the Nazi leaders at the first international war crimes court in Nuremberg has such a prominent mass murderer been brought to account. The proceedings will doubtless be televised. With the eyes of the world on it, the [Hussein trial] will be a great show.
On November 5, 2006, guards led Saddam Hussein into the defendant’s dock of a tense courtroom in Baghdad. Ordered to stand, Mr. Hussein took a seat instead, telling the judge in a mocking voice that he could hear him just as well from his seat. The judge sent two bailiffs to raise the former dictator to his feet. When one touched him, Mr. Hussein cried out, “You stupid man, there’s no need to twist my arm!” Then he stood to hear the decision of the Iraqi Special Tribunal (“IST”) in the Dujail case.
Chief Judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman proceeded to read the verdicts and sentences for Mr. Hussein and his six co-defendants. The court sentenced Mr. Hussein to death by hanging for willful killing, ten years’ detention for deportation of citizens, ten years’ detention for imprisonment or other severe deprivation of liberty in violation of international law, seven years’ imprisonment for torture, and seven years’ imprisonment for other inhumane acts. He was acquitted of charges of forced disappearances. As the judge pronounced the sentence, Mr. Hussein thrust his right forefinger in the air and shouted: “Long live the people! Long live the nation! Down with the occupiers! Down with the spies!” When the bailiffs moved to restrain him, he resisted angrily, then faced the chief judge, crying out: “Go to hell, you and the court!” He told the panel of judges they hadn’t decided anything themselves: “You are servants of the occupiers and their lackeys! You are puppets!”
Five minutes later, Mr. Hussein was on his way back to his cell, but the drama outside the courtroom was just beginning. All across the country, Iraqis had sat glued to their televisions, awaiting the verdict with bated breath. Having heard the death sentence, people in Dujail celebrated, burning pictures of Mr. Hussein and defying curfew to gather in the city center for a banquet. Meanwhile, in Mr. Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets in anger, some firing guns. A police vehicle, rather than enforcing the curfew, led a group of demonstrators down Tikrit’s main street. In Baghdad, the Iraqi government shut down two Sunni television stations, claiming they had broadcast images intended to provoke violence.
The verdict reverberated on the other side of the Atlantic as well. U.S. President George W. Bush immediately seized on the verdict, trumpeting it as “a major achievement for Iraq’s young democracy and its constitutional government.” Others in the United States and Iraq expressed suspicion that the timing of the decision was driven by Republicans’ desire to boost their chances in midterm elections, scheduled to take place two days after the verdict issued.
The verdict and its aftermath put many of the IST’s distinctive features on display, including the posturing of its insolent and infamous defendant, the rapt attention of its television audience, censorship, the ambiguous role of U.S. pressure, and the trial’s major social and political ramifications both in Iraq and abroad. Reactions to the verdict cast in stark relief the rift between those supporting the conviction and those who thought it was wrong. Although the division was particularly evident at the time of the verdict, debate has been raging about the trial since its inception. Some observers are concerned that the trial’s planners accorded the defendants inadequate rights and protections. Others have complained that the protections are too many; “put simply,” wrote one observer, “in the trial of Saddam Hussein, the international community seems wedded to process at the expense of pageant.” While numerous commentators have faulted the IST for failure to qualify as an international effort and for the extensive involvement of the United States in its design, others have defended its Iraqi location and use of Iraqi Arabic language, saying that the trial will promote “institutional capacity building” and avoid problems inherent in translation. Assessment of the conduct of the trial has been similarly discordant, with some observers complaining that Mr. Hussein hijacked the process for his own purposes and others complaining that he was silenced.
If prior trials in the wake of mass atrocity are any indication, the debate over the IST is likely to go on for some time. I make no effort to bring it to a quicker resolution. Rather, I seek to advance the discussion by giving more substance to one of the terms that has figured prominently in the debate: “show trial.” The term has been much bandied about: “[T]he truth about Saddam’s rule is so apparent that his defenders would rather make a show trial of the proceedings than face the facts,” The Washington Times stated. “While the proceedings against Saddam may bring short-term satisfaction,” wrote the Houston Chronicle, “they run the danger of becoming a mere show trial.” A commentator for the International Herald Tribune warned that “if leaders of Saddam Hussein’s regime are prosecuted by, or on behalf of, the United States, Iraqis will view the prosecutions as ‘show trials.’” And a Human Rights Watch official expressed fear that the Iraqi trials could turn into “political show trials.” But what exactly is a show trial?
In Part I, I propose a definition of “show trial” that encompasses many of the common uses of the term. Part II moves from the theoretical to the more concrete, laying out eight characteristics that may be useful in identifying show trials as conceived in Part I. Part III uses these characteristics to determine that the IST’s Dujail trial should be considered a show trial and situates it in comparison to several other well-known show trials. The conclusion considers the role Saddam Hussein’s trial will play in the future of Iraq….
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