Tony Blair said 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 on Monday 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 U.S. President George W. 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, reports AP.
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.