“So now, you do not know my name?” declared the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in response to a question posed by one of the judges at his trial. A wry smile broke across Saddam’s face before he said, “If you do not know me, why did you bring me here?”
In a subsequent session, a veiled witness took the stand. Masking the witness’s identity protected the individual from retaliation, yet it also undermined justice since the witness’s identity could not be publicly confirmed. Witness protection could have been achieved through other means, such as guarantees of official protection, without shrouding the proceedings in ambiguity.
The trial was undertaken by an ineffectual Iraqi judicial system, which was not equipped to prosecute their leader and his affiliates. To conclude this judicial fiasco, footage of Saddam’s execution with partisan cheers in the background was released to the public.
Justice, which was supposed to have been carried out in the name of the Iraqi people, turned into an exercise of politicized revenge. Subsequent public executions of Saddam’s inner circle continued to distort the face of justice in Iraq. Iraqis were presented with the images of their new country, which did not seem at all different to the old one, where revenge came before justice.
Syrians have realized that they may, some day soon, find themselves in a similar situation. The country’s institutions are destined to crumble completely along with the forecast collapse of the Syrian government. Some opposition groups are getting ahead of the game by establishing legal frameworks for a post-Assad Syria. These justice systems are currently being planned for those areas that would find themselves under opposition control when and if Assad falls.
This legal activity is being carried out by the Syrian Support Group (SSG). The SSG is a network of activists, most of whom are American businessmen with a Syrian background, based in Washington, DC. The SSG hopes to advocate the idea that only those who have committed crimes under the Assad government will be prosecuted when the regime collapses, rather than exacting revenge on the entire Alawi sect or other groups who are seen to have sided with the Assad government.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius expressed the merits of the network when he recently wrote, “This legal transition plan is the best idea advanced so far by the Syrian rebels because it addresses not just the brutality of the Assad regime but the real danger that Syria will descend into a chaotic failed state as the war continues and hatreds deepen.”
Ignatius called on the American and British governments to adopt the plan, saying that they “support the ideas of accountability and reconciliation in general but haven’t endorsed any specific formula for Syria.”
The Syrian Support Group said of its draft plan, “If the Alawi fear and apprehension, as a religious group, is not tackled, then Syria will not achieve a solution following the imminent exit of Assad from government. This issue poses a great danger to the stability of Syria in the future.”
Iraq’s failure to build a new country is linked to the failure of its justice system in the post-Saddam era. This was apparent during the trial of Saddam and is manifested in the retaliatory judicial system, which, today, seeks to prosecute Iraqi officials in an opaque fashion.
Lebanon also suffers from frequent miscarriages of justice. International judicial bodies have now stepped in, in the form of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), to prosecute those responsible for the assassination of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. However, the STL is moving at an extremely slow pace; many of its advocates have lost hope in its ability to yield results. The STL has contributed to further unrest in Lebanon, fueled by sectarianism and the doctrine of revenge in the absence of justice.
The Syrian opposition’s attempt to prioritize justice is a welcome development to avoid the kind of judicial chaos seen in Iraq and Lebanon. Let us hope the sound of Assad’s shelling will not drown out the voices advocating real justice in Syria. Sooner or later, Syrians will find themselves greatly in need of such initiatives.