Expressing unanimous opposition to capital punishment, Cambodian officials Sunday offered mixed reactions to the execution of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said executing Saddam had lowered the Iraqi government and coalition forces to the deposed president’s level.
“Saddam deserves to be brought to justice but [in] killing somebody because he is a killer, what is the difference between Saddam and the many governments controlling Iraq?” he wrote in an e-mail. “This is my personal point of view,” he said.
“For Cambodia we must remember that this country banned capital punishment…. We banned it not to please the outside world but because we embraced Buddhism,” he added.
National Assembly President Heng Samrin said that, while he was personally opposed to hanging—which he said was outdated—he respected the right of Iraq to apply its own laws.
“It’s the country’s law,” he said, adding that a hasty execution, however, had preempted trying Saddam for pending charges of murder and crimes against humanity.
Heng Samrin said that an unnamed country had undue influence over the Iraq Special Tribunal.
“I don’t want to name the country. You know it…. It invaded and manipulated the sentence,” he said.
A US Embassy spokesperson could not be reached Sunday evening.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said images of the execution had shocked him but that the 2003 US-backed military intervention had liberated Iraq from Baathist tyranny.
“I feel pity for him but it was necessary for the law to be enforced,” he said.
“I cannot say if it was fair or not. They follow their own law,” Cheam Yeap said. “Cambodia has no capital punishment. We have a lenient law, life imprisonment.”
Funcinpec First Vice President Price Sisowath Sirirath also declined to comment on the tribunal’s perceived fairness.
“It is their law. I cannot make comments contradicting their law,” he said. “[Saddam] made many people shed tears.”
SRP lawmaker and prominent Cham Muslim Ahmed Yahya reacted angrily to the news but said that, as a group, Cambodia’s Muslims would have no distinct reaction to the execution.
“I don’t know how the Buddhists react, but the Muslim reaction: I don’t see any people reacting,” he said. “They just say, ‘they killed Saddam’.”
Given the current level of mayhem and bloodshed in the country, Iraq was better off under Saddam, Ahmed Yahya said.
“If we compare those killed everyday now, if we compare the new government and the old government, the Saddam Hussein government is better.”
Whether justice had been served in Saddam’s case is a question for the Iraqis, Ahmed Yahya added.
“The people of Iraq know better than we do,” he said, adding that killing the former leader could exacerbate the problems inside the country.
Keo Remy, the SRP lawmaker who in November wrote to the UN seeking support for Sad-dam’s request to be executed by firing squad and not by hanging, said he had been appalled by the execution.
“For me, it’s violence. It makes me feel terrible,” he said. “I turned off the TV. I cannot watch something like that.”
Keo Remy declined to compare the swift justice meted out by the Iraq Special Tribunal with the difficulties experienced by the Extra-ordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. He added that he supported neither.
Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, said that, while he opposed the death penalty, he supported bringing Saddam to justice.
“I think the Saddam Hussein case is a good example to try the biggest criminals in the world in order to prevent big crimes in the future, and also to provide justice for the victims of atrocities,” he said.
“The Khmer Rouge tribunal I think is different from the Saddam trial,” Thun Saray said. “It’s very slow. Too slow.”
The failure to proceed with more than one charge against the former Iraqi leader is an imperfection like those always found in tribunals for crimes against humanity, Thun Saray added.
“The trials…are never perfect. We can call it relative justice,” he said.
The execution also sparked mixed feelings among ordinary Cambodians.
Prak Ath, 48, a 26-year traffic police veteran, said he supported trying Saddam but opposed capital punishment.
“I support the trial of Saddam but I wonder why they have a law to kill people like that,” he said. “If we don’t consider the law, it looks really like a violation of human rights.”
Vong Saran, a 52-year-old motorcycle taxi driver from Prey Veng province, said he was not disturbed by the process leading to Saddam’s execution.
“I don’t think it was too fast,” he said, adding that two of his sisters had been worked to death under the Khmer Rouge.
“I would like it if Cambodia sped the Khmer Rouge tribunal as fast as Saddam’s,” he added.