Barring a de facto pardon from Iraq's triple Presidency, Saddam Hussein is headed for an execution within 30 days from the Iraqi Supreme Court's ruling yesterday.
The appeal was decided just 51 days after the sentencing hearing.
In contrast, in American courts, it usually takes a month or two to transcribe the court record and transmit it to the higher court, after which briefing typically takes place over three months, after which there would ordinarily be a few weeks, at least, to prepare for oral argument, and after which it would ordinarily take months for a court to rule, if not longer. It would be unheard of for a first appeal in a capital case to be decided sooner than six months after a sentencing hearing in American courts, and often the process would take much longer.
In the American system there would also generally be a series of appeals in addition to the initial decision and direct appeals, called habeas corpus review. The average death row prisoner in the United States has been in prison for a decade or more prior to an execution.
The execution was not postponed to allow consideration of another capital case pending against the former Iraqi dictator, which may be rendered moot if it is not decided very swiftly.
The Death Penalty In Iraq
Obviously, a former head of state's case isn't typical. And, no one doubts that there were lengthy proceedings in the trial court, where a panel of judges presided, rather than the single judge and twelve person jury of American practice, and no one doubts that a great deal of time was spent reaching a decision after that trial.
But, the fact that this decision could happen so swiftly and other information about the death penalty in Iraq, suggest that should the Iraqi legal system has joined Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and the United States on the list of the most prolific sources of executions in the world.
A report from Amnesty International in September of 2006 found that scores of people had been executed in Iraq and that a couple hundred were on death row there. An October report specifically identified more pending executions of individuals whose trial court experience was not as fair as that of Saddam Hussein. Two of seven co-defendants in Hussein's case also face execution and Amnesty notes correctly that the case had strong political dimensions.
According to Amnesty, the death penalty was reinstated in Iraq in August 2004, and the first exeecution was carried out September 1, 2005. It appears that at least 60 people have been executed in Iraq from September 1, 2005 to December 20, 2006. It appears that the post-conviction appeals process from sentencing hearing to execution is taking about seven months in more typical cases.
Unlike Amnesty, I am not an opponent of the death penalty in all circumstances. Pre-meditated multiple murders, the kinds of crimes for which the death penalty may be most appropriate, are far more common in Iraq than other places where the death penalty is used heavily, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and the United States, all of which are countries where law and order prevails. And, Iraq doesn't have the same resources to detain people in prison for very long time periods that a country like the United States or Saudi Arabia does.
Iraq is not executing people for the kinds of comparatively minor property crimes that China does, although it does execute people for kidnapping and drug dealing, like the U.S., as well as murder.
Iraq also appears to be holding trials that are, at least, more meaningful than those held in China, or in the Islamic justice systems of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The trials may not even be up to the standard of Texas in the United States, which are among the worst in the United States and are the source of a great many U.S. executions. But, the Iraqi trials do appear, at least, to be better than what might be expected if military justice were metted out by the Iraqi military, with or without formal courts-martial, instead.
There is also some reason to hope that Iraq, should a state of civil war cease in the country, might change the death penalty, whose adoption was justified based on that state of rampant chaos and a breakdown of law and order.
In short, in Iraq, executions authorized by regularly conducted criminal trials with some protections of the rights of the accused, and a cursory direct appeal, and the potential for a Presidential pardon in select cases, may be preferrable to lawless death squads, and might encourage people who long for vengence and law and order to buy into the formal legal system as opposed to resorting to death squads. It may not end up happening that way. The U.S. legacy of lynchings in the reconstruction period, some of which happened in Colorado, attest to that fact. But, it is a plausible possibility.