Chemical Ali’s death by hanging

Saddam Hussein’s cousin, advisor and chemical weapons expert Ali Hassan al-Majid has been put to death for crimes against humanity and genocide, just eight days after The Iraqi High Tribunal sentenced him to death for the fourth time.
Al-Majid, or Chemical Ali as he was known for his chemical warfare expertise, was a close ally of the ex-President and was undeniably one of the most prominent figures in Hussein’s tyrannical regime. Chiefly tasked with exterminating all of Iraq’s Shia and Kurdish citizens, he also played the role of kingmaker or powerbroker in the bitter rivalry between Saddam’s two sons.
His political career began in 1987 when he was appointed to govern Iraq’s Northern provinces and the border with Kuwait. It was soon after taking office that Al-Majid sanctioned the annihilation of Kurdish and Shia peoples living in northern provinces which was later named the Al-Anfal Campaign. “The armed forces must kill any human being or animal present in these areas”, a decree signed by Al-Majid stated. Over the coming months a multitude of techniques were used to carry-out the killings, including the aerial spraying of nerve agents such as Sarin, an odourless gas which, when inhaled, causes the slow and excruciating disintegration of all nerves in the body. However, the Al-Anfal Campaign accounted for just one of his four death penalties. Other atrocities for which were handed down death penalties were: the savage gas attacks on the city of Halabja in 1988 which killed 5,000 people; the brutal crushing of the Shia revolution in 1991; and the slaughter of hundreds more in the province of Sadr in 1999.
It was this notorious cruelty and his seemingly comprehensive grasp of weapons of mass destruction that put Al-Majid’s name at the top of the CIA’s most wanted list. He was captured four months after British intelligence officers reported that he was dead by US soldiers in June 2003. From the moment his trial began on 21st August 2006 it was clear to all that it would be long and controversial. In particular Iraqis and the international community were angered by Al-Majid’s refusal to enter a plea which not only elongated the length of the trial, but also sent out a final message of defiance. He told the court, “I am not apologising. I did not make a mistake.”
Although almost all Iraqi’s seemed to approve of the trial in principle, both the direction of the trial and its eventual verdicts split public opinion. On one side some people felt that Al-Majid should have been tried for a single crime which would have allowed a quicker passage of justice, whilst on the other, people wanted the court and the international community to bear witness to the true hideous extent of his crimes.
The death penalties themselves were also a considerable cause of contention. Some felt that it was only right for him to suffer the same fate as his victims; others saw hypocrisy in hanging someone for killing; and more still thought that life imprisonment would have been more appropriate. One such advocate of incarcerating Chemical Ali was Freshta Raper who had herself lost family members in the Halabja attacks. Talking to the BBC she said, “I hoped that he wouldn’t be executed, but instead put in jail and visited every month by victims of the Anfal Campaign. For me staying having him in jail, rotting in jail, reminded every day about the pain he caused would be far better than hanging.”
News of the hanging, which came shortly after three suicide car bombs shook the capital city of Baghdad and claimed over twenty lives, was met amongst most Iraqi communities with a sense of jubilation or, at the very least, subdued relief and a sense of closure.
On the international stage, however, Al-Majid’s hanging seemed to rekindle fervent aversion to the death penalty. In particular, the human rights group Amnesty International made known its anger at the hanging with their Middle East Director Malcolm Smart describing it as, “the latest in a mounting number of executions, some of whom did not receive fair trials, in gross violation of human rights”. Perhaps more worrying was the emergence of some supporters of Al-Majid: one inhabitant of Tikrit (Al-Majid’s hometown) said, “ I give my condolences to the Iraqi people on the death of Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was killed by traitors and hooligans.”
Regardless of whether the trial and execution were just or not and regardless of whether it was approached in the wrong way, it is certainly true to say that with Al-Majid’s death Iraq and its people are one step closer to moving on from their horrific past. The suggestion of many commentators is that the burial of Chemical Ali and his confederates will usher in a new age of political and cultural unity and with it bring stability and hope for the Iraqi people. One thing is certain – they need it.