The fall of Saddam Hussein was supposed to lead to a bright new era of democracy for Iraqis, but so far all it’s led to is anguish and bloodshed. Similarly, his trial at the hands of his own people was supposed to be an example of real justice, but it was little more than a sad piece of theater.

Moreover, his execution on Dec. 30 has disgusted most of the world for the way it was carried out. In the end, hardly anyone extracted any satisfaction from his ignominious death.

The travesty on the gallows in Baghdad has reignited worldwide debate over capital punishment, which is still practiced in many countries though the number is dwindling over time. The Philippines recently outlawed the death penalty and South Korea will likely do the same in the near future, which is ironic considering that the United Nation’s new secretary general, former South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, departed from the traditional U.N. position of condemning capital punishment during his first day on the job by saying that it was a matter for each country to decide.

Ban’s equivocation shows that he takes his mandate seriously — a mandate not as much to the U.N. as to those countries, mainly China and the United States, who supported him for the secretary general’s position over objections from other countries. China and the United States still have the death penalty.

As does Japan, which explains why there was no official comment about Hussein’s execution other than a vague statement about continuing support for the current Baghdad administration.

In a bizarre bit of good fortune, the international furor over Hussein’s hanging was so loud that it drowned out whatever complaints had been raised over the hanging of four men on Christmas Day in Tokyo and Hiroshima.

Some of the complaints, which came from opposition party members and organizations like Amnesty International, centered on the timing of the executions. According to reports in the Mainichi and Asahi Shimbun newspapers, the Justice Ministry has become worried that the list of prisoners on death row is becoming too long. There are almost a hundred.

Seiken Sugiura, who was the justice minister before the present one, Jinen Nagase, took over three months ago, didn’t sign any execution orders during his tenure because of his religious beliefs. However, as the Asahi pointed out, a more relevant reason for the backlog is that more convicted killers are being sentenced to death. Until 2003, between two and seven criminals received the death penalty every year. In 2006 alone, the number was 20.

A high-ranking bureaucrat in the Justice Ministry told the Asahi that “if we allow the number of prisoners on death row to rise above 100, then the system breaks down.” In other words, the ministry still sees the aim of capital punishment as being a deterrent, and if hangings aren’t carried out then potential criminals aren’t going to be deterred. Amnesty International and other organizations have shown that capital punishment is not a deterrent, but bureaucracies are not run on suppositions. They are run on directives that may or may not have anything to do with reality. The bottom line, according to the Justice Ministry bureaucrat, is that “we didn’t want to end the year with zero executions.”

Politicians have a different concern since they have to face the public and bureaucrats don’t. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party didn’t want to spark yet another debate in the Diet about executions by having them carried out during the most recent session, which ended Dec. 19. They also didn’t want to carry them out close to the Emperor’s birthday on Dec. 23. Christmas Day was the last acceptable day they could do it before everyone went home for the holidays.

According to surveys conducted by the prime minister’s office, up to 80 percent of Japanese citizens are in favor of capital punishment. So why is the government so sheepish about executions? The Justice Ministry never announces them, only confirming they have taken place after the fact. They also do not reveal the names of the persons executed. The media find out from acquaintances of the condemned or interested parties who monitor prison activities.

In fact, the media have become more aggressive about reporting capital cases in the past several years, and for the first time that I can recall TV news reports announced the names of the condemned prisoners on the day they were put to death. Because the government carries out its death penalty policy in such an arbitrary way, it feels like a self-perpetuating system: Use it or lose it. The cynicism of the policy is obvious, which is why some media outlets asked, Why these four men? And why now?

Last October, writer Kaoru Takamura wrote an essay for the Mainichi in which she discussed the death sentence of the Nara man who murdered a little girl in 2005. She said she was troubled by the sentence because it seemed as if it was not based on objective criteria but rather on how loud society screamed for his extermination.

The essay caused a fuss, and recently a Mainichi editor discussed the subject with Takamura and published the transcript in the newspaper. Takamura’s concern is that the policy is not consistent, and can’t be. People are being sentenced to death for crimes that 10 years ago would have earned them a life sentence. Judges routinely take into consideration the feelings of the victims’ families, who are covered sensationally by the media. “But how does a judge measure the depth of a family’s sorrow?” Takamura asks. Should a person receive a heavier sentence for killing a child than for killing an adult?

Unless you remove all ambiguities and mitigating factors, capital punishment is, from a legal standpoint, inherently unfair. And as the Hussein execution revealed, it does not guarantee the kind of closure its adherents claim, just emptiness and frustration.