In a courtroom in Baghdad, there are two defendants – Saddam and the coalition forces.

Justice, like evil, has a banal face. The dock to which former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was brought sat in one of those familiar blond-wood courtrooms which feature on television whenever celebrities face the might of the US judicial process. If the set looked borrowed from LAPD Blues, then the detail belonged to the sort of magistrates’ bench rendered comatose by offenses involving absent tax returns.

Saddam himself looked diminished, as all captured tyrants do, especially those delivered to their day of reckoning in shackles.

Newspapers called him shabby or haggard, but he didn’t look too bad, in a white shirt worn over worked-out pectorals. The orthodontist called in, post-spider hole, for some televised emergency flossing seemed to have done a good job. Nothing in this tableau of groundbreaking justice leapt out to frighten the spectators.

But there are many questions to disturb not only the Iraqis whose lives Saddam wrenched apart but also global conscience. Many think the process begun last week is a blatant example of US stagecraft. Salem Chalabi, the tribunal head and nephew of one of the most vocal (and unsavory) Saddam opponents, is not a name to conjure impartiality. Nor does the sidelining of lawyers for the accused, and the exclusion of most Iraqi journalists, augur well for a process that may culminate in a hastily resurrected death penalty.

Much of the anxiety is justified, but not all. The statute under which Saddam stands trial bears the name of Paul Bremer, the departed US proconsul, but its drafters were a battery of international human rights lawyers. The charge sheet, though generic in content and silent about the war against Iran – when America tacitly backed Saddam – is clearly framed. Procedures for including independent prosecutors and judges are in place, as are provisions for a fair process.

So far, so good. Those who see the Hague as the better way must also acknowledge the endlessness of Slobodan Milosevic’s trial. The initial judge is dead; the defendant begins his account tomorrow. This may be scrupulous justice, but such slow-lane catharsis offers at best a scenic route to reconciliation. Some experts, including Peter Carter, chair of the Bar Council’s human rights committee, much prefer the Baghdad model.

But Carter rightly worries that the US risks ruining everything, and says its interference so far has been “unforgivable.” Film from the courtroom went out silenced. Arab television stations were excluded, and the tapes of the court proceedings on CNN were marked “Cleared by US Military.” Reports of disgraceful acts of censorship, destroyed videotapes of Saddam with a chain around his waist and other deletions not only blight justice, they also suggest to many Iraqis that, in a process manipulated by a hated occupier, some of the horrors perpetrated by the defendant may be cooked up as well.

On the face of it, the proof of Saddam’s crimes is everywhere, but evidence is flimsy stuff. Command responsibility, blurred in the Milosevic trial, may be easier to ascribe to Saddam the arch-controller. Even so, the occupation forces have already allowed some of the paper trail to be shredded. Witnesses may never divulge their testimonies if fear or intimidation ordain their silence. Some Iraqis argue that basic security is more important than bringing a dictator to trial, but justice is not a matter of ticking one box or another.

The success of the process against the dictator depends on whether the invisible legions he persecuted feel safe to tell their stories.

As the legal process begins, the coalition also has a case to answer. It is no good for George Bush to pretend that last week’s stage-managed display of freedom reigning is Iraqi justice for Iraqis, when the signs are it could be nothing of the kind. It is indefensible, too, for the government to suggest that we shall have to condone the death penalty if that is the course chosen by a semi-sovereign Iraq. A country pledged never to return citizens to regimes where they might be executed cannot, because expediency or obeisance to the US demands it, suddenly decide there is a corner of the world where it is fine for the state to kill people. Such a view, shaming to the British government, would also demean the new Iraq.

Perhaps Iraq will look to its history. In 1963, five years after the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy, rebels executed Brigadier Qassim, the country’s “Sole Leader.” As his bullet-riddled corpse was paraded on Iraqi television, the Baath Party moved toward power, and the scene was set for a new savior.

Saddam, rumored to have extracted a bullet from his leg with a razor blade before swimming the Euphrates and fleeing to Syria, was already a legend-in-waiting.

Now, in his disgrace, he retains one hope of potency. The power of pity is available even to monsters, if they are seen to be suitably ill-treated by their captors. Saddam clanking in chains is a more persuasive figure, for all his viciousness, than a tyrant offered the protective panoply of the law. But what, exactly, is that?

It is assumed, patronizingly, that the Iraqi model of justice is some tinpot effort of questionable legitimacy, propped up by the exemplary jurisdictions of the West. But recent lessons, from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib, show how shoddy and rough that justice can be. In England and Wales, the process of picking senior judges is so biased that, according to a report last week, appointments should be suspended.

Though good at exporting justice and giving places such as Trinidad and Jamaica written constitutions, we retain for domestic use a constitutional shambles and a Human Rights Act that Peter Carter calls “wimpish.”

If Iraq and those who saw their loved ones die are to have their reconciliation, it will not be signed in a tyrant’s blood or delivered by Western hypocrisy. Violence is rarely assuaged by more of the same. The cycle of hatred brought no peace in Northern Ireland and it will bring none in Iraq.

The Saddam trial may promise an end to division and a better future. It may help cement the rule of law that is the cornerstone of all democracies. But if the former occupiers censor and interfere, the process could instead symbolize the collapse of justice that disfigures citizens’ lives in all centuries.

The image lingers of a prisoner with a bad beard, a murderous reign and a fantasy of being King Lear. Saddam is not the only defendant. In the years to come, the conduct of those who ended his tyranny will also be on trial.

Originally published in The London Observer on July 4, 2004