[Originally published here as part of WITNESS‘s collaboration with Global Voices Online]

Over the past four months, we’ve tried to feature and contextualise videos we felt should be seen and debated by a wider audience. Today’s featured human rights video is something completely new.

You may be one of the millions who have sought it out online – or you may have decided to avoid it. Someone – a friend, a colleague, a relative – may have emailed it to you, or called you up to tell you about it. You may have seen a clip of it on the TV news. One way or the other, you’re likely to have an opinion on it, because it’s made for a memorable start to 2007, as political cartoonist blackandblack’s cartoon illustrates:

2007 - a cartoon by http://black-blackandblack.blogspot.com

Click here to launch blackandblack’s blog in a new window.

If anyone was still in any doubt that sousveillance was one of the ideas of the year, then the Saddam video should put that beyond doubt. What’s different about the cellphone footage of the execution of Saddam Hussein, former dictator of Iraq, is that, aside from being probably the most watched web video in history, it has re-ignited a global debate on a perennial human rights issue: capital punishment.

Iraqi blogger Raed Jarrar links to both the official and unofficial videos here – on a personal note, I found it one of the most disturbing videos I have yet had to watch, so viewer beware…

Judging by the Iraqi government’s indignation at the unofficial footage, and the ambivalent reaction of many major media outlets (as detailed by Armenia-based Onnik Krikorian here), they were the only ones genuinely surprised that a cameraphone was smuggled past the security checks into the death chamber. If whoever filmed it had surrendered his cellphone before the hanging, the world may never have seen beyond the mute, carefully-edited, tastefully-faded-out official video of the proceedings.

The real story emerging from the Saddam video is that, in laying bare the huge gap between the managed official account of his execution and the far messier reality, it has provoked people – and many bloggers – to reflect less on whether Saddam merited his fate, and more on the nature and appropriateness of that fate for the age we live in.

The UN and NGOs criticise Saddam execution…

It’s important to remember that the International Community remains opposed to the death penalty, and that the right to life is enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights – although new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon needed reminding of this on his first day at work. Indeed the UN’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has called directly on the Iraqi government to delay the executions of Saddam’s co-defendants, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, his half brother, and head of the Intelligence Service, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former Chief Judge of the Revolutionary Court, citing questions over the fairness of their trial.

UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, says that Saddam’s execution represents a clear violation of human rights law for three reasons: the lack of a fair trial, the Iraqi government’s refusal to countenance an appeal, and the humiliating manner in which the execution was carried out. In other words, in addition to the UN and human rights law opposition to the death penalty on the basis of right to life, the manner of this execution and the lead-up was a violation of human rights law in and of itself. And now Romano Prodi, Prime Minister of Italy, is pressing the UN to go further by ratifying a Universal Moratorium on the death penalty.

International human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which campaigns against the death penalty, have strongly criticised both the trial and the execution of Saddam Hussein, with Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, saying:

His trial should have been a major contribution towards establishing justice and ensuring truth and accountability for the massive human rights violations perpetrated when he was in power, but his trial was a deeply flawed affair. It will be seen by many as nothing more than ‘victor’s justice’ and, sadly, will do nothing to stem the unrelenting tide of political killings.

… so Iraq’s government pins the blame

Facing a firestorm of international condemnation over Saddam’s trial and for the manner of his execution, the Iraqi government has conducted an investigation into the unauthorised video. In an echo of the fallout of Abu Ghraib, the investigation has identified the source of the unofficial videos as two Justice Ministry guards, despite claims from Munkith al-Faroun, prosecutor at Saddam’s trial, himself among the 14 witnesses of the execution, that two senior officials were openly filming events in the death chamber on their cellphones. At one point the New York Times even reported that one of the two officials was Iraq’s National Security Advisor, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, but later corrected this, saying that it had erroneously quoted Mr Faroun.

Bloggers worldwide react to the Saddam execution video

Whoever filmed the cellphone footage, what it reveals has had an enormous impact. There has been plenty of discussion of the geopolitics surrounding the execution of Saddam – take a look at the Iraqi Blogodrome, Lebanon, Iran, North Africa, and elsewhere. The anger about the decision to execute Saddam on the morning of Eid al-Adha is well-documented too – Raed Jarrar is stunned, Abu Aardvark speculates on motivations behind the timing, and Leilouta simply describes a childhood memory of the sacrifice of a lamb. But the cellphone footage has brought a different edge to the discussion – and the irony that debate over capital punishment has been reignited by the execution of a man on trial for genocide is not lost on anyone.

GV’s inimitable Salam Adil hits the nail on the head with The Ghost of Saddam Hussein:

Everyone .. and .. their .. auntie seems to have produced their own Iraqi blogger reviews rounding up reactions to the execution of Saddam Hussein.

However, what is needed now is some analysis. So here is my humble attempt to make some sense from the stream of opinions flowing out of the Iraqi blogodrome.

Nearby on GV, Jose Murilo Junior (or perhaps his auntie) provides a fascinating run-through of Portuguese-language bloggers’ reactions – ranging from condemnation of the execution to a fearful evocation of “the emergence of a fifth power — decentralized, far-reaching, anarchical” (that’s us and our cameraphones, in case you hadn’t realised).

Kazakh blogger Adam Kesher invites his readers to vote for or against capital punishment in Kazakhstan, where the government of President Nazarbayev passed a moratorium on the death penalty three years ago. Does he deserve his punishment, or is it a “barbaric sacrifice to political gods?” Of the 27 votes received, 18 are against the death penalty.

From another country with a moratorium, Sean’s Russia Blog
rounds up Russian media coverage and opinion of the execution, including the news that far-right leader

Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDRP staged a minor protest in front of the Iraqi embassy in Moscow to oppose the execution. Forty four people attended to the demonstration, which wasn’t sanctioned by the police and no one was arrested.

At Two Weeks Notice, Greg Weeks shows how hard other governments are finding it to square the circle. He thinks the Cuban government, which retains the death penalty, might be displaying double standards in denouncing the execution.

Raed Jarrar’s description of the execution sums up why the video has stirred up such conflicting emotions:

The execution scene did not at all resemble a State execution; rather, it looked like a chaotic sectarian act of revenge interrupted by shrieking militiamen who received him from the U.S. forces less than 30 minutes before killing him.

Raed, who says he is against the death penalty, makes a stinging attack on the Iraqi government’s reaction to the leaked execution video, calling the incident “Execution-Gate”:

As if the problem is about who filmed the shameful scene, not about who designed it and participated in it.

In Malaysia, Ktemoc thinks that the guard held for filming the execution is a “low-level scapegoat”, and sees echoes in the execution fiasco of his country’s Squatgate scandal, which I wrote about in September.

In Egypt, Sandmonkey says the video turned his stomach. Adele of Trinidad’s The Bookmann goes further:

The use of a phone camera to bring the world more private imagery from the scene also lent an air of the perverse on top of the existing perversity.

Where are the protesters now?

Astrubal, a Tunisian in exile, writes more directly:

Le monde entier va être témoin -à vomir- de cet acte barbare, exécuté non point par un psychopathe sanguinaire et sadique, mais par un Etat sous couvert d’une pseudo justice.

Translation: The whole world will bear witness – to the point of vomiting – to this barbarous act, carried out not by a bloody and sadistic psychopath, but by a state under the cover of pseudo-justice.

and goes on to lament the absence of Arab protests against the continued use of capital punishment:

J’avais espéré que l’exécution abjecte de Saddam, par sa médiatisation, puisse servir à quelque chose. Quelle soit à l’origine d’un mouvement vers un moyen radical pour empêcher désormais nos tyrans (mais aussi les américains) d’exécuter nos concitoyens –chez nous- en toute impunité.

J’avais espéré observer des manifestations pour clamer “A bas la peine de mort !“, “A bas la sentence destinée à exécuter sous couvert de la loi les adversaires politiques“, “Finissons-en avec ce permis de tuer dont personne ne peut garantir l’impartialité !“, “Abrogeons cette offense à la dignité humaine qu’est la peine de mort !”.

Hélas, au lieu de cela nous assistons aux cris de : “A bas l’Amérique et gloire à Saddam le martyr“.

Translation: I had hoped that the abject execution of Saddam might, through its dissemination in the media, be of some use. That it might be the beginning of a shift towards a radical/grassroots way to prevent our tyrants (but also the Americans) from ever executing our fellow citizens again, on our soil, with total impunity.

I had hoped to see demonstrations proclaiming “Down with the death penalty!” “Down with the sentence used to execute political opponents under the guise of the law”, “Let us end this license to kill, the impartiality of which no one can guarantee!” “Ban the death penalty, which is offensive to human dignity!”

Alas, instead of this, we hear cries of “Down with America, and glory to Saddam the martyr.”

And on Friday, after prayers, several towns in Jammu and Kashmir witnessed violent protests against the execution, as local Muslim protesters burned effigies of George W Bush and American flags. Also on Friday, three thousand protesters marched in the Jordanian capital Amman against American and Iranian influence in the Middle East. And the NYT reports from Beirut that the cry of “Saddam the martyr” is spreading across the region.

AL Tarrar at Baghdad Connect turns to philosophical anthropologist Rene Girard to make sense of this, arguing that Saddam effectively committed ritual suicide:

The hanging of the Saddam on the first ritual day of religious festivities – when myths, fears, etc are at highest echelon, will produce a ritual ‘sacrificial’ victim for those who deem Saddam is turned into a martyr, and ritual ‘sacrificeacble’ victim for those who deem Saddam is a punishable murderer. […] Becoming more like gods, he refused to acknowledge the new social order and became nihilistic, and as with the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ members he had eventually committed suicide while he was reciting ritual verses during the act.

African bloggers rage against Saddam apologists

In the African blogosphere, Sudanese Thinker, suffering conflicting emotions on seeing the execution video, excoriates Saddam apologist bloggers. Next door, in Kenya, M of Thinker’s Room sparks off a debate about capital punishment among his international readership in a post entitled “They Shouldn’t Have Hanged Saddam”. UK-based Olawunmi takes a starkly different view, sending Nigeria’s leaders a memento mori, that what happened to Saddam can easily happen to other wayward leaders. Another trenchant Nigerian blogger, Akin, advocates turning Saddam’s posthumous trial for genocide into a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But the most downbeat confession comes from Nkem Ifejika, also based in the UK:

On the night he was executed, a group of us had a debate about capital punishment. I am against it. Not because I believe the worst of humankind should be spared the indignity of state execution, but for our own dignity. We, the judge, jury, and excutioner. We are the ones who need to preserve our own nobility by not killing people. What has killing Saddam gained the world? One less mouth to feed maybe, but other than that – nothing. Is it ever possible for capital punishment to be seen as anything loftier than state sanctioned revenge? I think not. When we were growing up, most of our parents told us not to hit back. Turn the other cheek. Revenge is for the Lord. But even one of the mot theocratic governments in the world, the US government, is in favour of the death penalty.

It’s 2007, but it might as well be Middle Ages. Firing Squad, Hanging, Lethal Injection, Electric Chair, Guillotine. What’s the difference?

Finally, to the USA, where 60 executions took place during 2005, and 53 in 2006. But the debate made be shifting: in December, the US President’s brother, Jeb Bush, suspended executions in Florida where he is Governor after an execution by lethal injection was “botched” – now 10 states have taken similar measures. And on January 2nd, the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission issued its report [PDF] recommending to the Governor of that state that the death penalty be abolished. Organisations such as the Death Penalty Information Center and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty are consistently trying to raise informed debate on the issue – and new grassroots discussion fora exist to house these debates. But since Saddam’s execution, it seems everyone is talking about it – and it’s the cellphone video that sparked it all.

A blog on Catholic legal theory, the Mirror of Justice, questions whether the Iraqi government qualifies as a functioning state, and therefore whether the execution was morally justified. One media columnist warns readers that they shouldn’t gloat over Saddam’s death, as he was, while he was carrying out the crimes for which he was executed, supported by the USA. Not everyone wants a debate, however, as a strident defence of Saddam’s execution testifies at Reject The UN.

As always, feel free to comment, or to add links to coverage from where you are, via the box below.

Resources and further reading

Amnesty International has recently updated its Facts and Figures section on the death penalty. While 128 countries can be considered to have abolished the death penalty wholly, partly or in practice, 69 retain the death penalty, although not all of these will use it in any given year. At least 2,148 people were executed worldwide in 2005 in 22 countries – one country, China, carried out 1,770 of these executions. Six methods of execution have prevailed since the year 2000:

– Beheading (in Saudi Arabia, Iraq)
– Electrocution (in USA)
– Hanging (in Egypt, Iran, Japan, Jordan, Pakistan, Singapore and other countries)
– Lethal injection (in China, Guatemala, Philippines, Thailand, USA)
– Shooting (in Belarus, China, Somalia, Taiwan, Province of China, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and other countries)
– Stoning (in Afghanistan, Iran)

Amnesty USA provides a list of relevant international legislation showing the progress towards abolition of the death penalty.

The Project on Extrajudicial Executions, based at New York University School of Law, was established by Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and publishes extracts of his correspondence with governments around the world, and working papers on the right to life.

As for blogs, Abolish The Death Penalty is predominantly US-focused, and has recently been running a series of interviews with the families of executed prisoners. The site has a useful blogroll, with links to many US-based and international blogs on the death penalty, including the excellent Asia Death Penalty.

Beyond the USA, Think Centre is a Singaporean NGO lobbying for an end to the death penalty in Singapore, and Hands Off Cain is an Italian-led campaign for an immediate UN moratorium on the death penalty. Please do add further resources through the comments box below.

[This post benefited from the input of several GV colleagues – Salam Adil, Sami Ben Gharbia, Leila Tanayeva, Ndesanjo Macha, Veronica Khokhlova, Preetam Rai, David Sasaki, Natham Hamm – and Sam Gregory and Hakima Abbas at WITNESS. Thanks to all. Any mistakes are mine alone, likewise any infelicities of translation.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *