Blair says Saddam trial a reminder of his brutal regime

Britain opposes the death penalty but it believes the trial of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was worthwhile because it reminded people around the world that he was a brutal dictator, says British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Britain opposes the death penalty but it believes the trial offormer Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was worthwhile because it reminded people around the world that he was a brutal dictator, says British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"We are against the death penalty, whether it's Saddam or anybody else," Blair said at his monthly press conference in London.

"However, 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," Blair 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."

But Blair did not wish to dwell on the verdict, saying: "There are other and bigger issues to talk about."

Saddam was found guilty Sunday of crimes against humanity and sentenced to hang for the 1982 killing of 148 Shia Muslims in a town north of Baghdad. The verdict automatically goes to an appeals panel.

The reaction of world leaders to the verdict and death sentence was mixed late Sunday and early Monday.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay refused to comment directly on the death sentence until the appeal has been heard.

"They've had an open and transparent trial where evidence was heard," MacKay said Sunday, "but at this point, my understanding is there is an appeal process to follow, so given that fact, I think it would be pre-emptive to be passing any judgments or making any firm public declarations until all of those avenues have been exhausted.

"Obviously, there is an impact on the ground in Iraq that we have to be very cognizant of, but I suspect as with most processes, this appeal will delay the inevitable."

U.S. President George Bush, however, said the death sentence is "a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.

"Today, the victims of this regime have received a measure of the justice which many thought would never come," Bush said. "It's a major achievement for Iraq's young democracy and its constitutional government."

Automatic appeal

The nine-judge appeals panel has no time limit to review the case. But if it upholds the conviction and sentence, the execution must be carried out within 30 days.

According to the Associated Press, the appeal process is likely to take up to a month once the paperwork is done.

If the panel upholds the verdict, Saddam would be hanged despite a second trial that is expected to continue while the other trial is being appealed. The former Iraqi leader and six others are facing charges of murdering thousands of Kurdish people in the late 1980s in a government crackdown.

Other Saddam subordinates have also been sentenced to death— Barzan Ibrahim, Saddam's half-brother; and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court.

Former Iraqi vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to life in prison, while three other defendants were given up to 15 years in prison for torture and premeditated murder. One of the eight defendants was acquitted.

'Enormous milestone'

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said justice has been done.

"Appalling crimes were committed by Saddam Hussein's regime. It is right that those accused of such crimes against the Iraqi people should face Iraqi justice," Beckett said in a statement.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the trial is an "enormous milestone on a very hard road to democracy for Iraq."

Howard said Saddam is a "mass murderer" and he finds it "heroic" that Iraq, despite its problems, has been able to convict and sentence Saddam.

"The whole process of the trial is a sign of democratic hope and I believe the world should see it as such," Howard said.

The European Union also welcomed the verdict, but said Saddam should not be put to death. It said it opposes capital punishment and does not think the death sentence should be carried out in this case.

Meanwhile, at the Vatican, Renato Cardinal Martino, top prelate for justice issues for the Pope, said the sentence is "eye for an eye" vengeance.

Amnesty International, an international human rights group that campaigns on behalf of political prisoners, questioned the fairness of the trial, saying it is does not believe the court was impartial and that adequate steps were not taken to ensure the safety of the lawyers in the case.

Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights, called on Iraq to make certain that the appeals process is fair and not to execute Saddam even if the appeals panel upholds the sentence.

Saddam's government was toppled in April 2003 during a campaign led by U.S. forces, on the assertion that Iraq possessed hidden stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. No evidence was found to support that claim.

After an intense manhunt, Saddam was captured by American soldiers in December 2003 at a farmhouse in the town of Adwar, not far from his hometown of Tikrit.

With files from the Associated Press