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Iraq: Europe, Washington At Odds Over Possible Death Sentence For Hussein

U.S. President George W. Bush's statement that deposed President Saddam Hussein deserves to pay the "ultimate" price for his brutal rule of Iraq has set off a firestorm of debate between advocates and opponents of the death penalty. Reaction in Europe has seen top officials of many states restate their opposition to court-ordered executions, which are banned in the European Union.

Prague, 18 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Until U.S. President George W. Bush's remarks regarding the death penalty, most world leaders seemed to be in agreement on the kind of trial former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein should receive: a fair trial, in accordance with international standards.

But nobody detailed exactly which international standards the trial should meet. UN chief Kofi Annan, in offering the world body's help with any trial, broadly described them by saying, "Whatever court is set up has to meet basic international norms and standards, and if -- in doing that -- one needs to get help from our side, I think it should be considered. But the emphasis should be in respecting the basic norms and standards, including international humanitarian law."

But while all parties agreed that Hussein must be tried fairly, the U.S. president's recommendation of the death penalty -- and the firestorm that has generated -- now suggest the world may have a difficult time indeed trying the ex-dictator.

Bush, in remarks to a U.S. television network on 16 December, said that Hussein deserved the "ultimate penalty" for his brutal rule in Iraq, adding that Iraqis should conduct the trial. Coming from the former governor of Texas, a leading U.S. state in imposing the death penalty, the president's opinion was widely understood to mean Hussein should be executed after his likely conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

That recommendation has caused a furor in Europe, including among America's closest allies in efforts to reconstruct Iraq. Those closest allies -- Britain, Spain, and Italy -- do not impose the death sentence, which is banned throughout the European Union.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, already under strong domestic criticism for supporting the invasion of Iraq without a UN mandate, stated that London is opposed to the death penalty. But he suggested Britain would not try to influence the choice of sentences awaiting Hussein, saying that question "has to be decided by the Iraqi government and Iraqi people."

Another top British official, Foreign Minister Jack Straw, sought to remind the British public that attitudes over the death penalty differ in different countries. He, too, said the matter must be left to the Iraqis themselves.

"It is an obvious reality that the death penalty exists and is used by other countries, including [two] of the five permanent members of the United Nations [Security Council] and that, in the end, the appropriateness of a punishment is a matter for sovereign governments and then for their courts," Straw said.

But the British officials' remarks left open the question of whether London would take part in Hussein's trial by lending its foreign expertise to an Iraqi tribunal. That would be in line with the many calls to assure Hussein gets a fair trial according to international standards. But any participation could be a sticky issue for the British public if the tribunal's options include imposing sentences banned in Britain itself.

In a first sign of the difficulties that could lie ahead, Britain's envoy to Iraq, Jeremy Greenstock, said this week his country would not participate in a tribunal or legal process that could lead to execution. He provided no further details.

In Spain, the official response to Bush's remarks signaled sharp disagreement. Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said she opposed the death sentence for Hussein because his trial "must be a symbol of human ethics and morality in the face of the most miserable and inhumane qualities."

And in Italy, Defense Minister Antonio Martino said simply: "I am not willing to give political powers a license to kill."

The Spanish and Italian officials did not address whether their countries would join international efforts to assure Hussein is fairly tried if the death penalty is an option.

So far, an Iraqi government which could decide under what conditions Hussein is tried has yet to be formed. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) now in control of the country is due to hand over power to a provisional Iraqi administration by the end of June.

But some members of the current U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) have said that the death penalty will be an option in war crimes trials in the country.

Dara Nur al-Din, a judge and member of the IGC, told Radio Free Iraq this week that the Iraqi legal system is moving ahead with preparing courts to handle war crimes cases and that for now the death penalty in Iraq remains on the books.

"The death penalty is not cancelled. It is only suspended by [CPA head] Ambassador Paul Bremer. This issue will be decided by a transitional Iraqi government, which will be formed next June," al-Din said.

That may mean that the controversy over whether to put Hussein to death -- and what adopting such an option could do to international endorsement of the court which tries him -- will only grow as Hussein's trial approaches.

The process of finally deciding the venue for the trial, selecting judges, and preparing indictments against Hussein is expected to take months. No date for a trial has yet been set.