Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, opposes the death penalty for Tariq Aziz, one of Iraq's worst enemies.

A wartime lexicon.
Nov. 22 2010 12:14 PM

Humane Bravery

Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, opposes the death penalty for Tariq Aziz, one of Iraq's worst enemies.

Jalal Talabani. Click image to expand.
Jalal Talabani

When I wrote a recent call for the commutation of the death sentence against Tariq Aziz, I was privately hoping that the president of Iraq would intervene, as he has done before, to say that he would decline to sign his name to the death warrant. Last week, President Jalal Talabani gave an interview to a French television channel saying exactly that. He gave three reasons for his position: The first is that he is a socialist who is personally opposed to capital punishment. The second is that Tariq Aziz is an Iraqi Christian. The third is that the condemned defendant is an old and sick man.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

These different reasons in combination are slightly more than the sum of their parts. It is true that Talabani's party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is a member of the Socialist International, with fraternal relations with the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, the German Social Democrats, and many others. The French influence was at one point especially strong, because Danielle Mitterand, then wife and now widow of the former French president, took a very close interest in the fate of the Kurds during the humanitarian crisis of 1991, after Saddam Hussein's last attempt to exterminate them, and later used the opportunity to press the Kurdish leadership to join what is now an international consensus against the penalty of death. (In fact, reviewing her husband's dismal tenure of the French presidency, it's arguable that the abolition of the guillotine constituted the only high point.)

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The fact that Aziz is a practicing Roman Catholic does not of course exempt him from Iraqi law even at its worst. But it's clear what Talabani meant to say, in a month that saw a wave of savage pogroms against the Christian congregations of Baghdad. It would be nice if the heads of more regional governments, and the leaders of more Muslim communities, had condemned this barbarity. But as it is, the solidarity of a Sunni Kurdish Socialist is a prize more worth having.

The record of Aziz's church has been distinctly uninspiring in all this: The Vatican was officially opposed even to the United Nations attempt to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and in the last round of negotiations welcomed Aziz himself with disgusting warmth, both to Rome and Assisi, as the smirking "Westernized" face of a hideous regime. Indeed, in its bogus capacity as a "state," the Vatican was the only "government" in Europe to maintain full diplomatic relations with Saddam Hussein during the period of international sanctions. (The only comparable recent disgrace was its lone decision to do the same thing with the right-wing dictatorship in Haiti until the U.N./U.S. intervention in 1994.)

Then again, the fact that Aziz is elderly, ailing, and a grandfather is strictly speaking irrelevant. He lived so long only by eating well during years of starvation and misery for the population, and by watching countless children and grandchildren of many better people get ploughed under in Saddam Hussein's wars of conquest and repression. If he hadn't already been sentenced to enough years in prison to ensure that he died behind bars, the question of commutation wouldn't come up.

I am aware of three appalling facts about Tariq Aziz that are not generally known. All three of them I learned from Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, the head of the United Nations inspection team in Iraq. The first is that Aziz offered direct face-to-face bribes to senior members of that inspectorate on the condition that they would "amend" their findings about weapons of mass destruction. The second is that he privately offered to "turn off" Iraqi state support for regional and international terrorist groups in return for concessions on the economic sanctions. (Both of these disclosures are obviously of wider application and interest, at least to those who still believe that WMD, terrorism, and Baathism are never to be mentioned in the same breath.) The third is that, in top-level discussions of Iraqi WMD, he more than once referred to the Iranians—past and until recently future targets of Saddam's chemical arsenal—as "the Persian beasts."

Disgusting as these things are, they do not carry the death penalty. The only truly lethal count on which Aziz has been convicted, which is his complicity in the deportation and massacre of the Kurdish people, is not the announced justification for his sentence. And if the Kurdish leaders are ready to be amazingly magnanimous about that atrocious episode, their view should carry great weight. This effectively leaves Aziz condemned to die because of cruel measures used to suppress the Dawa Party, which happens to be Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's power base. The last time this standard was employed, it led to something horribly close to a lynching in the case of Saddam Hussein.

On that occasion, too, Talabani tried to withhold his signature from the warrant and was outmaneuvered by dubious executive action on Maliki's part, with the help of a hasty and discreditable collusion by the Bush administration. A sort of case could possibly be made that the killing of Saddam was an extension of war by other means: the removal of any rallying point for the diehard fascists in his party and their al-Qaida allies, who were actively striving to destroy Iraqi society. But a stable legal and penal code cannot be established or operated on sweeping assumptions like that, and the death of Aziz, a pathetic and contemptible figure, would be little more than the conclusion of a vendetta.

How strange it is that a brave and humane social democrat is now the elected president of Iraq, attracting approximately zero sympathy from the Western liberal left. (In the most recent haggling over the formation of a coalition government, President Obama actually called Talabani and asked him to step down, as if the presence of a fighter for national liberation in the office was something of little or no value.) Talabani's intervention in the Aziz case is a microcosm of what some of us hoped Iraq would one day become: a state of law instead of a state of blood. It's not a hope that we can ever afford to abandon.

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