Joan Smith: Moral? This is just state-sanctioned murder

The Ba'athists had also celebrated their coup with televised hangings
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The Independent Online

I can't say I enjoy finding myself on the same side as the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the only reason I'm in such uncongenial company this weekend is the pusillanimous behaviour of the British government. As Saddam Hussein's lawyer revealed on Friday that he'd been told to get ready to receive the former dictator's effects, Tony Blair was on holiday in Florida and saying nothing. A spokesman for the Foreign Office said: "We have made our position on the death penalty very clear to the Iraqi authorities", but he couldn't give me chapter and verse: "It may well have been through our embassy in Baghdad or through ministers."

Yesterday, as photographs of Saddam on the scaffold with a noose over his head were shown on Iraqi state TV, the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, repeated the statement she made in November, welcoming the fact that the former dictator had been "held to account" for his appalling crimes. She confirmed the UK's opposition to the death penalty in Iraq, but said: "We respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation."

This is jaw-dropping stuff, given that Mr Blair went to war in Iraq on moral grounds - with cast-iron support from Mrs Beckett, I seem to remember.

With his unembarrassed talk about God, Mr Blair presents himself as the most morally driven British leader since Gladstone. Yet capital punishment is state-sanctioned murder, even if the person in question happens to be Saddam Hussein - especially if it's Saddam Hussein. Because one of the purposes of the 2003 invasion was to replace his regime with something better. You don't achieve that by replicating his behaviour, and the present Iraqi government needs reminding that the Ba'athist regime celebrated its coup in 1968 with televised hangings of Jews and Communist Party members.

As vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, Saddam enjoyed a ringside seat at this event, offering an early insight into the likely nature of his regime. Nouri al-Maliki's democratically elected government rejected the idea of hanging the former dictator before a crowd in a football stadium, but pictures of his dead body have been officially released.

According to Mr Maliki, to condemn the death sentences handed out to Saddam and his two co-defendants is an insult to Iraq's "martyrs". Personally, I would have thought that quite enough people have died violently since the invasion, without adding to the total. And while the Shia suburb of Sadr City in Baghdad exploded with joy yesterday, the Iraqi government was braced for a violent reaction from Saddam's Sunni supporters; at least 31 people died and 25 were injured on Saturday in a terrorist attack on a marketplace in the mainly Shia city of Kufa in southern Iraq. And while Mrs Beckett may believe that Mr Maliki's government is committed to "fostering reconciliation", he has a strange way of going about it.

Most democratic countries, with the exception of the US, rightly regard the death penalty as abhorrent. During Saddam's dictatorship, thousands of trade unionists and human rights activists were murdered because they wanted a peaceful, democratic Iraq, not a gratuitous act of revenge. Executing convicted criminals sends the message that killing isn't wrong in itself; it's simply a question of who has the right to do it. As people continue to die through sectarian violence, this is the last thing ordinary Iraqis need to hear.

The British government has meddled in their affairs to a greater degree than any country apart from the US, and this isn't the moment to get all relativist and start hiding behind the fig leaf of national sovereignty.