Europeans denounce Hussein’s execution

Times Staff Writers

The death penalty is anathema across Europe, and opposition to the execution of Saddam Hussein was nearly unanimous among its leaders Saturday. At the same time, however, many were torn between those strongly held beliefs and revulsion for the former Iraqi dictator’s record of atrocities.

Some of the strongest criticism came from the Vatican. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that all human life must be respected from conception until its “natural end.”

The execution “is tragic news ... that risks feeding the spirit of revenge and sowing new violence,” said Pope Benedict XVI’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.


“Even though this is a person guilty of grave crimes,” Lombardi told Vatican Radio on Saturday morning, the execution “is a motive for sadness.”

“The killing of a guilty party is not the way to build justice nor to reconcile society.”

The Vatican’s top official for justice issues, Cardinal Renato Martino, said that Hussein was responsible for thousands of deaths but that executing him amounted to punishing “one crime with another crime.” Speaking before the hanging, he said, “The death penalty is not a natural death, and no one, not even the state, can kill.”

Several European leaders, spanning the political spectrum, questioned whether justice was served by Hussein’s execution and said it could bring further bloodshed.

“We’ve already seen in the first hours the consequences, with a predictable increase in tension and violence,” Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said from his home in Bologna.

Spain’s center-left government and right-wing opposition, which rarely agree, condemned the hanging of Hussein as well as the late dictator’s litany of abuses.

“The death penalty is not justice, it is vengeance, and so it was in this case,” Gustavo de Aristegui, a senior official with the opposition Popular Party, told the Spanish news agency EFE. “But nobody will miss Saddam Hussein.”

In Britain, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett reiterated her nation’s opposition to the death penalty but applauded the process of bringing the former Iraqi leader to trial.

“I welcome the fact that Saddam Hussein has been tried by an Iraqi court for at least some of the appalling crimes he committed against the Iraqi people. He has now been held to account,” Beckett said.

“The British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else,” she said. “We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation.”

But Menzies Campbell, leader of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, said: “Saddam’s death does not vindicate in any way the ill-conceived and disastrous decision to invade Iraq. His execution does not make an illegal war legal any more than it will put an end to the violence and destruction.

“Britain’s interests will best be served by the withdrawal of our forces sooner rather than later.”

France, which was a strong opponent of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, said Hussein’s judgment and sentence were a matter for the Iraqi people.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said: “France, which advocates like all its European partners the universal abolition of the death penalty, takes note of Saddam Hussein’s execution. That decision belongs to the Iraqi people and to the Iraqi sovereign authorities. France calls on all Iraqis to look forward and to work for reconciliation and national unity. More than ever the aim must be a return to the full sovereignty and stability of Iraq.”

European politicians who are friendly to Washington stressed -- carefully -- their unease with the Hussein execution.

“We respect the decision, but it is known that the German government is opposed to capital punishment,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

“But on a day like this my thoughts are mostly on the many innocent victims of Saddam Hussein,” she said.

Only in Poland, where a conservative government has remained an enthusiastic ally of the Bush administration, was there unequivocal support for the execution.

“Justice has been meted out to a criminal who murdered thousands of people in Iraq,” President Lech Kaczynski’s spokesman said, according to news agencies.

“This should serve as a warning to all those who would like to follow in Saddam Hussein’s footsteps.”

Wilkinson reported from Rome and Murphy from London.