Saddam trial falls into chaos soon after resumption

Iraqi leader was escorted out after he shouted "down with traitors."

January 29, 2006 17:06
Saddam trial falls into chaos soon after resumption

saddam in cage 248.88. (photo credit: AP [file])

Saddam Hussein's trial quickly turned chaotic after resuming Sunday with one defendant dragged out of court and the defense team walking out in protest. The former Iraqi leader was then escorted out after he shouted "down with traitors" and refused his new court-appointed defense lawyers. The new chief judge in the trial, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, sought to show a tough control over the court and pressed ahead with the proceedings even after the opening drama, hearing three prosecution witnesses. After the four and a half hour session, the judge adjourned until Wednesday, though he said if that day turns out to be a public holiday, the trial will resume Thursday. The Islamic new year is approaching, but its exact date depends on the sighting of a new moon to start the lunar month. Defense lawyers said Sunday's stormy session showed the trial was not fair. Critics have already questioned the court's independence after Abdel-Rahman was brought in as chief judge in a shake-up this month, sparked when his predecessor resigned amid complaints he was not doing enough to rein in Saddam's frequent courtroom outbursts. But Abdel-Rahman's strong hand impressed some Iraqis who believed the trial had been out of control. "His seriousness shows that he is an efficient and controlling judge who refuses to turn the court into a field to exchange slanders," said Tariq Harab, an Iraqi lawyer who is not involved in the trial. "This is the right approach that should have been adopted right from the beginning." The trial's fairness is a vital concern in a nation that is trying to bring reconciliation between its Sunni Arab minority, which dominated Iraq under Saddam, and the Shiite Muslim majority that now controls the government. Sunday's proceedings, the first session in over a month, disintegrated almost immediately into shouting and insults. First, Barzan Ibrahim _ one of Saddam's co-defendants _ was pulled out by guards after he stood and called the court "the daugher of a whore," while Saddam shouted "Down with traitors" and "Down with the Americans." Then Abdel-Rahman threw out one of the defense attorneys for arguing with him. The rest of the defense team stormed out in protest as the judge shouted after them, "Any lawyer who walks out will not be allowed back into this courtroom." Abdel-Rahman appointed four new defense lawyers. But Saddam stood and rejected them. Holding a copy of the Quran and other papers under his arm, he said he wanted to leave. After an argument with the judge _ during which guards pushed Saddam back into his chair _ Abdel-Rahman ordered guards to escort the former Iraqi leader out of the room. Two other defendants also rejected their new lawyers and were allowed to leave. When the dust settled, the proceedings resumed with only four of the eight defendants present, and none of their original lawyers. The court began hearing an anonymous female prosecution witness, who testified from behind a beige curtain, as several earlier witnesses have done to protect them from repraisals. The new defense lawyers declined the opportunity to cross examine the witness. The delayed television feed of the proceedings _ which is in the judges' control _ was cut off right after Ibrahim's initial outburst. It resumed some time later, cutting out the removal of Ibrahim and the subsequent fight with the lawyers but showing the judge's arguments with Saddam. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is part of Saddam's defense team but did not attend Sunday's session, called the court "lawless" and repeated calls for it to be moved out of Iraq. "Now the court is seated without the defendants' counsel of choice. This is wrong. They have the right to their own counsel and for that counsel to hear and question testimony made against the defendants," Clark said, speaking from New York. After the session, court official Raid Juhi said the chief judge acted properly to maintain order in the court. He said the defense team could make a petition to return. "There is nothing to stop them from returning," he told reporters. "The court will look into any such request." Saddam and his seven co-defendants are charged in the deaths of about 140 Shiite Muslims following an assassination attempt against the former Iraqi leader in the Shiite town of Dujail in 1982. The defendants could face death by hanging if convicted. Heading into Sunday's session, Saddam's defense team said they would file motions questioning the court's independence and legitimacy because of the shake-up among the judges. The trial had been due to resume on Tuesday, but that day's session was abruptly called off after some members of the five-judge panel opposed Abdel-Rahman's appointment. Abdel-Rahman was brought in after his predecessor, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, resigned in mid-January. Politicians had complained about the slow pace of the proceedings and Amin's patience in the face of Saddam and Ibrahim's frequent outbursts. Amin's deputy, Saeed al-Hammash, had been expected to take over as chief judge but was moved off the case after allegations he once was a member of Saddam's Baath party. Al-Hammash _ a Shiite _ denied the claims, but was replaced by Abdel-Rahman, who like Amin is a Kurd. Abdel-Rahman began Sunday's session with a show of authority, shouting at one defense lawyer for interrupting him. He gave an opening statement underlining that "political speeches" were not allowed and warning: "If any defendant crosses the lines, he will be taken out of the room and his trial will be carried out with his absence." Ibrahim stood up, demanded to be allowed to speak and said, "Circumstances have forced us to deal with each other here, in spite of my belief that this tribunal is illegitimate, the daughter of a whore." The judge ordered him to sit down, shouting, "One more word and I'm throwing you out." When Ibrahim refused to sit, two burly guards grabbed him by the arms and after some pushing and shoving, dragged him out of the court. As they scuffled, Saddam stood and shouted, "Down with the traitors. Down with America." Defense lawyers began shouting as well. "Is this a street demonstration, are you lawyers?" Abdel-Rahman barked at them. The judge turned to defense lawyer, Salih al-Armouti, a Jordanian who recently joined the team, and said, "Can you you do this in your own courts in your country?" "My country gives me my rights," al-Armouti replied. Abdel-Rahman ordered guards to take al-Armouti out of the court and threatened criminal procedings against him. When al-Armouti was removed, the rest of the defense team left in protest. After Adbel-Rahman appointed new defense lawyers, Saddam stood and rejected them, telling the judge he had a right to leave if he does not accept his attorneys. "You do not leave, I allow you to leave when I want to," Abdel-Rahman said. "For 35 years, I administered your rights," Saddam replied, referring to his time in power. "I am the judge and you are the defendant," the judge said. Two guards pushed Saddam by his shoulders back into his chair, but then the judge ordered them to lead him out of the room. After the initial outbursts, three anonymous witnesses _ two women and a man _ testified Sunday for several hours. With all three, the court-appointed defense declined Abdel-Rahman's offer for them to cross-examine or make statements. The first witness, a woman, told the court how she was arrested several days after the assassination attempt on Saddam. Shde said her interrogators removed her Islamic headscarf and gave her electric shocks to her head. "I thought my eyes would pop out," she said. Sixteen other members of her family were also arrested, and seven of them were killed in detention _ including her husband, who she said was tortured to death. Amin, the former chief judge, watched the trial from home in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, questioning whether his critics could run the tribunal any better than he. "I am happy that I am no longer part of this trial. I am happy to watch it on television while sitting in my house," he told The Associated Press. "I wish the trial were run by a Shiite judge because I want to know how they are going to manage it"

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