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Debate over Hussein execution
extends beyond Iraq, into capital punishment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The execution of Saddam Hussein was deserved, but handled improperly, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press Jan. 2.

“Simple justice demanded Saddam Hussein be found guilty by his countrymen and executed in the manner that befits such a war criminal, by hanging rather than a firing squad,” Land said. “The justice that demanded his execution, however, was cheapened by the less-than-dignified manner in which the execution was carried out.”

The former Iraqi dictator was executed in Baghdad Dec. 30, reportedly being taunted by those who carried out the sentence. Hussein exchanged insults with the men and quoted the Muslim confession of faith, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger,” before being hanged.

Land noted that “despots around the world who are so dismissive of other human beings lives will now have to now take into account the fact that there is the very real possibility that they will be held accountable for their crimes against humanity and also will be dealt with justly and swiftly.”

European countries in large measure condemned the execution as “uncivilized,” with their leaders saying the act would lead to further violence. Officials in Britain, the United States’ strongest ally in Iraq, said the execution showed that Iraq was moving toward democracy and the rule of law. They said they did not support the death penalty, however, under any circumstances.

That same sentiment was expressed by the Vatican and several other religious groups. Cardinal Renato Martino, Pope Benedict XVI’s lead clergyman on justice-related issues, said Hussein’s execution punished a “crime with another crime.”

“The death penalty is not a natural death. And no one can give death, not even the state,” Martino said.

The Vatican’s press office also issued a more lengthy statement, condemning the execution as “tragic.” The statement from Friar Federico Lombardi said the Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty had been confirmed many times.

“The execution of the guilty is not a path to reconstruct justice and to reconcile society. Indeed, there is a risk that, on the contrary, it may augment the spirit of revenge and sow seeds of new violence,” Lombardi said in the statement.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church, echoed that sentiment shortly after the execution. He told BBC radio that Hussein deserved punishment, but not the death penalty. “I think he deserves punishment and sharp and unequivocal punishment…. But I would say of him what I have to say about anyone who has committed even the most appalling crimes in this country, that I believe the death penalty effectively says there is no room for change and repentance,” Williams said.

But a Southern Baptist ethicist told Baptist Press that the Iraqi people had the right to execute Hussein with a process governed by the rule of law. “Romans 13, where the Apostle Paul wrote that God has instituted human government to restrain evil, allows for capital punishment. And Paul was writing this about a government hostile to Christianity,” said Craig Mitchell, professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

“God has given the state the authority and power to carry out punishment,” Mitchell said. “He has given them the sword. You don’t spread butter with the sword. The sword is used to kill. This execution was something that was long overdue. Saddam Hussein did deserve a trial. The rule of law did have to be carried out. And while we shouldn’t rejoice that a man is dead, we should rejoice that justice was served for the Iraqi people who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s boot for nearly three decades.”

General Secretary Samuel Kobia with the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, meanwhile, issued a statement encouraging Iraqi leaders to build a heritage of “reconciliation and mutual respect among all its communities” following the execution.

“At the death of Saddam Hussein, our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Iraq. We pray to God to grant this suffering nation the mercy, justice and compassion that it has long deserved,” Kobia said in his statement. “That a leader has been held responsible for his crimes is significant. However, the World Council of Churches is opposed to the death penalty. Each taking of a person’s life is part of a larger tragedy and nowhere is this more apparent than in a land of daily killings.”

Leith Anderson, interim president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told Baptist Press the government that executed Hussein had acted within its rights, even though he personally opposes the practice. “Governments and people need to make judgments; they need to make decisions. I hope capital punishment is used only in the clearest cases and with the most careful of applications.

“The execution of Saddam Hussein was done by a government other than the United States. It was, therefore, beyond our jurisdiction politically,” Anderson said. “I have no doubt he committed crimes worthy of this punishment. However, being pro-life I am always reluctant to see the use of capital punishment.”

Hussein was convicted in an Iraqi court of ordering the deaths of 148 Shiite villagers in Dujail in 1982 after a failed assassination attempt there. He also was on trial for other massacres that took place during his near-25-year rule. Hussein, according to a New York Times report in January 2003, may have killed as many as a million Iraqi citizens since 1979.

President Bush said following the execution that Hussein had received a fair trial, “the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime.”

“Fair trials were unimaginable under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule,” Bush said. “It is a testament to the Iraqi people’s resolve to move forward after decades of oppression that, despite his terrible crimes against his own people, Saddam Hussein received a fair trial. This would not have been possible without the Iraqi people’s determination to create a society governed by the rule of law.”

President Bush, however, cautioned that Hussein’s execution would not end the violence in Iraq, though “it is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain, and defend itself, and be an ally in the War on Terror.”

“We are reminded today of how far the Iraqi people have come since the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule — and that the progress they have made would not have been possible without the continued service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform,” Bush said. “Many difficult choices and further sacrifices lie ahead. Yet the safety and security of the American people require that we not relent in ensuring that Iraq’s young democracy continues to progress.”

Hussein’s execution met with mixed reaction worldwide. The governments of both Kuwait and Iran -– countries invaded by Iraq under Hussein’s rule -– issued public statements supporting the verdict. But Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization devoted to the destruction of Israel, said the execution “violated international law.” Libya’s dictator Mohmar Qadafi cancelled national celebrations for Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival commemorating the supposed willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael to Allah. Pronouncements from Egypt and Jordan also claimed that the timing of the execution was an affront to Islam.

At least one former Iraqi official, Rizkar Mohammed Amin, who presided over Hussein’s first trial but who was forced to resign under political pressure for being too lenient with the dictator and allowing his outbursts in court, said the execution was illegal because it had violated Muslim law, which stipulates that prisoners may not be executed during Eid al-Adha. The holiday began on Saturday for Sunnis — the day of the execution — and on Sunday for Shiites.

But Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser, told CNN in an interview that the execution occurred before sunrise Saturday when Eid al-Adha begins. Hussein was hanged in a Shiite area of Baghdad and Iraq’s government is now dominated by elected officials from the majority Shiite population. Hussein’s Shiite executioners, according to some reports, taunted the deposed dictator prior to his hanging, and danced around his body afterward.

Hussein was deposed in March 2003 when U.S. and coalition military forces invaded the country after the dictator failed to comply with multiple United Nations resolutions demanding the nation’s full disclosure and cessation of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. Captured several months later, he was charged with war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Hussein’s first trial, resulting in the conviction for the Dujail killings, concluded Nov. 15. He was then sentenced to death. A final appeal was rejected by the Iraqi high court Dec. 26 and a mandate was issued that the sentence should be carried out within 30 days. A second trial began in August 2006 for the mass killing of ethnic Kurds in the northern part of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.

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  • Gregory Tomlin