The chief judge in Saddam Hussein's genocide trial said Thursday that he did not believe the former Iraqi leader had been a dictator.
Judge Abdullah al-Amiri made his remark in a friendly chat with Saddam during court proceedings - a day after the prosecution asked him to step down, alleging bias toward the defendants.
Saddam was questioning a 57-year-old Kurdish witness, who testified that the ex-president aggressively told him to "shut up" when he pleaded for the release of nine missing relatives nearly two decades ago.
"I wonder why this man (the witness) wanted to meet with me, if I am a dictator?" Saddam asked.
The judge interrupted: "You were not a dictator. People around you made you (look like) a dictator."
"Thank you," Saddam responded, bowing his head in respect.
A Shi'ite Muslim with 25 years experience, al-Amiri was a member of Saddam's Baath party and served as a judge in a criminal court under the former leader's regime. He heads the five-judge panel overseeing Saddam's trial on charges of committing atrocities against Kurds in northern Iraq nearly two decades ago.
On Wednesday, Chief Prosecutor Munqith al-Faroon demanded al-Amiri step down, accusing him of bias toward the deposed leader and his co-defendants.
"You allowed this court to become a political podium for the defendants," al-Faroon told al-Amiri.
The prosecutor said the judge was giving Saddam the time to make "political" statements that were irrelevant to the proceedings.
"For instance yesterday, instead of taking legal action (against Saddam), you asked his permission to talk," al-Faroon said. "The action of the court leans toward the defendants."
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