Comment: Death won’t bring repentance

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Gay campaigner Peter Tatchell claims that hanging former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would not bring repentance.

Hanging Saddam Hussein is easy. But is it morally right? Will it best serve the cause of justice? How will it help his victims and their loved ones? Is the Butcher of Baghdad beyond redemption?

My first ever human rights campaign was in 1967, against the death penalty in my home state of Victoria, Australia. Ronald Ryan was hung for a killing he probably did not commit and almost certainly did not intend. Ever since then, I have opposed judicial murder.

Despite his monstrous crimes, nothing about Saddam’s case moves me to alter my view that democracies should live by a higher morality than the crude revenge-motivated pay-back of “an eye for an eye.”

The Iraqi people are struggling to establish a democratic, humanitarian state. Embracing human rights means rejecting the death penalty. Having turned their back on Saddam’s dictatorship, now is not the time to revert to his brutal methods.

I say this as someone who – unlike Mr Bush and Mr Blair – campaigned against Saddam’s tyranny for over 30 years. My memory is crammed with bloody images of the many Iraqis he tortured and massacred.

I remember, too, the small, lonely protest marches to the Iraqi Embassy in the 1980s, when western governments ignored Saddam’s terrorisation of communists, socialists, democrats, trade unionists, students, journalists, lawyers, human rights advocates, Shia Muslims, and minority nationalities like the Kurdish people.

I can understand why many Iraqis believe Saddam should pay with his life for the hundreds of thousands of lives he snuffed out with a casual click of his fingers. But I still believe judicial murder is a step too far.

I have another idea:

Instead of hanging Saddam, sentence him to life imprisonment in a secure prison outside of Iraq, under the supervision of the International Criminal Court. Perhaps in The Hague?

Removing Saddam from the country of his crimes would help allay some of the distress felt by the families of his victims. It would also dash the dreams (and plans) of his die-hard supporters to spring him from prison and restore him to power.

Given his monstrous crimes and lack of remorse, Saddam should be subjected to a special prison regime.

The former dictator should be placed in a cell with all the walls, and the entire floor and ceiling, covered with large photos of the massacres he ordered and the faces of the victims. Every day, all day, he would be forced to confront the reality of his crimes.

From 8am to 8pm daily, taped testimony from the people he tortured should be played into his cell. He would be compelled to hear in detail the terrible suffering he inflicted on others.

For a month, twice a year, Saddam should be put on minimum food rations, so that he knows the pain of the hunger he inflicted on the Marsh Arabs when he destroyed their environment and livelihoods.

To subvert his arrogance and egoism, Saddam should be forced to wear a shocking pink prison jumpsuit emblazoned back and front with the words: “I am a murderer. I am a torturer. I am guilty of genocide.”

Everything in his cell should be shocking pink – his blankets, sheets, socks, shoes, towels, plates, cutlery, the wash basin and toilet – even his underpants. Apparently, shocking pink has the psychological effect of calming prisoners, curbing their violent and anti-socialinstincts, and making them more likely to reform

The ultimate aim of this suggested special prison regime is redemption, not punishment or humiliation.

Give Saddam an incentive to change: his special prison regime should be cancelled and he should be rewarded with normal prison rights if he makes a video confession of his crimes against humanity, offers a public apology, condemns the civil war and sectarian violence, and expresses his support for democratic elections and human rights.

Fat chance Tatchell, I hear you say. But after a couple of years of this special prison regime even a hard-man like Saddam might start having self-doubts. Worth a try, I think.

Saddam is better alive and repentant than dead and without remorse.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free page