Saddam defiant as trial starts [Archives:2005/887/Front Page]

October 20 2005


BAGHDAD- Oct. 19- The former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein stood trial on Wednesday for allegedly committing crimes against humanity. He has been suspected of ordering the killing of over 140 shiites that could carry the death penalty if he is convicted.

When the trial began, the former Iraqi leader defiantly stood and asked the presiding judge “who are you? I want to know who you are.”

“I preserve my constitutional rights as the President of Iraq,” Saddam Hussein said. “I do not recognize the body who has authorized you and I do not recognize this aggression do not respond to all this so-called court with due respect. “

Saddam, wearing a dark jacket over an open-necked shirt, entered the court shortly before proceedings got under way just after noon in Baghdad (0900 GMT).

The court was presided over by a five-judge panel, headed by Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd, sitting on dais looking down on the defendants, who were in white metal pens on a marble floor. The scales of justice hung on the wall behind the judges.

Prosecutors will try to show that Saddam, in retaliation for the botched assassination attempt, ordered his henchmen to hunt down, torture and kill scores of men from the town where the attack took place, on that day and in the years that followed.

The defense is expected to petition the judges for an adjournment saying it has not had enough time to prepare for the trial and arguing that the court, established during the U.S. occupation in 2003, is illegitimate.

The opening hearing may last just hours, however, before the trial is adjourned, possibly for weeks or months. Saddam's lawyer, who said his client was in good spirits on the eve of the trial, is seeking a delay to allow more time to prepare.

Iraq's government, led by long-time enemies of Saddam and looking for popularity ahead of elections in December, hopes the trial will boost the morale of Iraqis struggling against the hardships of the insurgency 2-1/2 years after the war began.

Human rights groups have expressed unease about perceptions of “victor's justice”, warning that the trial must not only be fair, but be seen to be fair, and raising concerns about the legitimacy of a body set up during U.S. occupation.

The eyes of the world are on the trial, which is being televised with a 20-minute delay, not just to capture the moment that Saddam stands in the dock, but to watch whether Iraq under its new leadership can fairly try its deposed ex-dictator. Security at the court was extraordinarily tight.

If found guilty, Saddam could face death by hanging and according to new statutes governing the tribunal, any sentence would have to be carried out within 30 days of all appeals being exhausted. That means Saddam could be executed before being tried for other crimes such as genocide.

While the former president's day in court has been long awaited by millions of Iraqis and others, it may not last long.

Sources close to the tribunal say the case may be quickly adjourned so the judges, partly trained in Britain over the past year, can study defense motions for a dismissal or delay.

Saddam, 68, may not speak other than to confirm his name when charges are read out. At a pre-trial hearing in July last year he defiantly gave his occupation as “president of Iraq”.

In a statement posted on the Internet on Tuesday, people calling themselves members of the Baath Party urged Saddam's followers to rise up and defy the court with gunfire.

In Baghdad and areas to the west, mortar rounds landed near U.S. military bases, and in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, dozens of young men rallied and chanted in support of the ex-president.

“The trial is unfair,” said student Dawud Farham, aged 18. “They should put on trial those who are tearing apart Iraq and its people.”

“Brutal crackdown”

Khalil al-Dulaimi, Saddam's chief lawyer, said on Tuesday following a visit to Saddam's detention cell that his client was calm and confident of his innocence.

An Iraqi with little experience of arguing major cases, such as those involving alleged crimes against humanity, Dulaimi has said he intends to challenge the legitimacy of the court.

The defense team has said he will present a dossier of 122 points designed to show that the court, set up by Americans, does not have jurisdiction over Saddam and is illegal.

He will also ask for more time to study more than 800 pages of evidence collected by investigators over the past two years and which the defense team received just 45 days ago.

He may also argue that Saddam had presidential immunity.

The charges stem from events that took place on July 8, 1982, when a group of young men linked to the Shi'ite Dawa Party attempted to assassinate Saddam as his armored motorcade passed through Dujail, a town about 60 km (35 miles) north of Baghdad.

In retaliation for the botched attempt on his life, prosecutors will try to show that Saddam ordered his henchmen to hunt down, torture and kill scores of men from the town, not just immediately after that day, but in the years that followed.

Women and children were also alleged to have been forcibly removed from Dujail, taken to Abu Ghraib prison and later sent to an internment camp in the desert near the border with Saudi Arabia where many ultimately “disappeared”.

Helicopters and tanks then demolished parts of the town, while Saddam's soldiers laid waste to rich farmland and fruit groves, destroying the people's homes and their livelihoods.