Tony Blair's opposition to Saddam execution aligns him with EU, against U.S.

Monday, November 6th 2006, 5:57 pm
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) Tony Blair said Monday he opposes the death penalty for Saddam Hussein, a reluctant admission that on this issue, the British prime minister stands by colleagues in the European Union and not with his American allies.

But EU opposition to the sentence seems to be more a reaffirmation of principles than a serious challenge that could affect the imposition of the sentence.

Reporters at Blair's monthly news conference had to press him hard to elicit an acknowledgment that his long-standing opposition to capital punishment also applied to the deposed dictator. Every time he mentioned his disapproval of the punishment, he added a lengthy condemnation of Saddam's brutality, and he made it clear he did not intend any protest of the sentence.

``There are other and bigger issues to talk about,'' he said. ``The trial of Saddam gives us a chance to see again what the past in Iraq was, the brutality, the tyranny, the hundreds of thousands of people he killed, the wars in which there were a million casualties.''

Nonetheless, Blair's stance puts him at odds with President Bush, who praised the death sentence Sunday as ``a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.''

Blair's view was widely shared by European leaders, many of whom noted their opposition to capital punishment but welcomed Saddam's trial and conviction, as did the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand.

The EU's 25 governments are strongly opposed to the death penalty and have often appealed to foreign governments on behalf of Europeans facing execution abroad. Any country hoping to join the bloc must abolish capital punishment; when Turkey eliminated the death penalty in 2002, it was seen as a big victory for Europe's ability to influence potential members.

A U.N. rights expert urged Iraqi authorities not to carry out Saddam Hussein's death sentence, expressing concern about the consequences the judgment could have on the volatile situation in Iraq. Leandro Despouy, the U.N. special investigator on the independence of judges and lawyers, also criticized the fairness of the trial and called for the establishment of an independent, impartial and international tribunal supported by the global body to either retry or handle the appeals process.

Analysts in the Arab world, meanwhile, said they were less concerned about Saddam's fate than about how his downfall could affect the rest of the Middle East and its rulers.

``His fall has shaken regimes and thrones and scared big butchers,'' Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, a Saudi Arabian columnist and the head of the pan Arab Al-Arabiya television, wrote in the prominent pan Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

But it has also shown that changing dictatorial leaders is so costly that it could force ``the world to remain silent on bad regimes,'' he wrote.

European leaders said the heinousness of Saddam's crimes did not change their view that state-sponsored killing was wrong. Several warned that putting the former leader to death could worsen sectarian tensions and lead to more bloodshed in Iraq.

``A country ravaged by violence and death does not need more violence and especially not a state-orchestrated execution,'' said Terry Davis, secretary-general of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. ``Saddam Hussein is a criminal and should not be allowed to become a martyr.''

Italian Premier Romano Prodi said the guilty verdict mirrored the world community's judgment about Saddam, but emphasized Rome's opposition to capital punishment.

``Italy is against the death penalty and so even in such a dramatic case as Saddam Hussein, we still think that the death penalty must not be put into action,'' he said after meeting Blair in London.

Pope Benedict XVI's top cardinal said in a radio address that killing the former Iraqi leader was against Christian teaching.

``God gave us life and only God can take it away,'' Cardinal Renato Martino said on Vatican Radio, adding that had Saddam been put in the hands of an international court, he would not have faced the death penalty.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that while it was ``right and important'' that Saddam had faced trial, her country opposes his execution.

``It is clear that there is fundamental skepticism and rejection of the death penalty,'' Merkel said.

As the foremost European supporter of the Iraq war, though, Blair is in a tougher spot since it is awkward for him to criticize the death of a leader he went to war to topple.

Blair appeared visibly rattled when pressed on the question, responding several times with the general statement that Britain opposed capital punishment. Only under persistent grilling did he eventually say: ``We are against the death penalty, whether it's Saddam or anybody else.''

He said the fact the trial had occurred was an encouraging indication that Iraq was on a democratic path.

``What I think is important about this is to recognize that this trial of Saddam has been handled by the Iraqis themselves, and they will take the decision about it,'' he said. ``It does give us a very clear reminder of the total and barbaric brutality of that regime, the numbers of people that died, hundreds of thousands of them. ... That doesn't alter our position on the death penalty at all, but it simply does give us a reminder of that.''