Defiant Saddam pleads 'not guilty,' challenges legitimacy of tribunal

Posted in Iraq | 20-Oct-05 | Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Defiantly challenging the judge, Saddam Hussein pleaded not guilty on Wednesday at his trial for crimes against humanity allegedly committed two decades ago. After a three-hour hearing during which Saddam and his seven co-defendants were charged with murder and torture in connection with the deaths of 148 Shiite men in the early 1980s, the chief judge adjourned the trial until November 28.

Afterward, as he was being led out of court, Saddam angrily ordered two jailers in armored vests not to hold his arms. He squabbled with them for a minute and shoved one of them hard in the shoulder, and then they let him walk out untouched.

The judge, Rizgar Mohammad Amin, told Reuters the main reason for the adjournment was that between 30 and 40 witnesses, some of them relatives of the men killed, had been too frightened to show up and testify.

Saddam's lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, asked for the names of the witnesses who will testify for the prosecution - names that have been kept strictly secret to prevent reprisals against them. Amin said Dulaimi could ask the prosecutors for the names but did not say if he would order them handed over.

Asked by the judge for his full name, Saddam, 68, shot back and challenged the legitimacy of the U.S.-backed court: "I won't answer to this so-called court ... Who are you? What are you?" Saddam said as the judge smiled sardonically. "I retain my constitutional rights as the president of Iraq."

Amin said: "You are Saddam Hussein al-Majid ... former president of Iraq," at which point Saddam raised his finger to interrupt, saying testily: "I did not say former president."

Saddam was the last to enter the marble-floored court before the trial began shortly after midday. He carried a copy of the Koran.

"This is the first session of case number one, the case of Dujail," Amin told the court, referring to the town where bloody reprisals followed an attempt on Saddam's life on July 8, 1982.

The defendants include Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti, Saddam's half-brother and a former director of the feared mukhabarat intelligence service, and former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, one of the regime's "enforcers."

"They are charged with murder, forced expulsion, imprisonment, failure to comply with international law and torture," Amin told the eight, all of whom pleaded not guilty.

The chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Moussawi, then outlined the case against the men, saying Saddam was closely involved in planning retaliation after the assassination attempt against him in Dujail. Moussawi said the prosecution had videos of Saddam personally interrogating four Dujail residents soon after his motorcade was fired on.

Saddam countered videotapes should not be admissible as evidence, insisting they can be altered and faked. The judge did not respond to his argument.

International observers, including several human rights groups, were in the court inside Baghdad's fortress-like Green Zone to monitor a trial some warned beforehand might end up creating the impression of "victor's justice".

The Iraqi government denied that the trial was a distraction from the persistent insurgency and other more pressing problems.

"The reason why the country is in such a mess is because one man stole the will of 27 million people for 35 years, and pushed them into wars and misery," said government spokesman Laith Kubba.

The event was broadcast around the world with a 30-minute delay.

Of the judges, only Amin's face was shown on TV, and he conducted all questioning.

The trial has started nearly two years after Saddam was captured hiding in a hole in the ground near where he was born.

When the trial resumes, prosecutors will try to show that Saddam, in retaliation for the attempted assassination, ordered his henchmen to hunt down, torture and kill scores of men from Dujail, on that July day and the years that followed.

Apart from the men said to have been killed in reprisal, women and children are alleged to have been removed from Dujail, taken to Abu Ghraib prison and later interned in a desert camp near the Saudi border where many ultimately "disappeared."

The defense is expected to ask the judges for a dismissal, contending that the court, set up in December 2003 when Iraq was under formal U.S. occupation, is illegitimate. Saddam's lawyer, Dulaimi, is likely to argue that his client, as president, was immune from all criminal charges.

If found guilty, Saddam could be hanged. Tribunal statutes say any sentence should be carried out within 30 days of appeals being exhausted. That means Saddam could be executed before being tried on other charges such as genocide against the Kurds. - Agencies