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(photo credit: AP)
The presiding judge in Saddam Hussein's trial, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, said Wednesday that the main reason for the postponement of the trial was that many of the witnesses for the prosecution were afraid to appear.
Amin indicated that between 30 and 40 witnesses failed to arrive for the proceedings, which took place in a secured hall in the Green Zone in Baghdad. "The witnesses were afraid to testify," Amin said. "We intend to address the issue for the upcoming trial."
Hussein's trial was postponed on Wednesday until November 28, at the behest of his attorney, who wanted more time to examine the evidence.
Hussein went on trial Wednesday for alleged crimes against fellow Iraqis, turning immediately argumentative and challenging the legitimacy of the courts he appeared before a five-judge tribunal in the former headquarters of his Baath Party two years after his capture.
Saddam and seven former members of his regime face charges of murder, torture, forced expulsion and illegal imprisonment for a 1982 massacre of nearly 150 Shi'ites in the town of Dujail. They could face the death penalty - by hanging - if they are convicted.
When the trial began, the 68-year-old ousted Iraqi leader, looking thin with a salt-and-pepper beard in a dark gray suit and open-collared white shirt, stood and asked the presiding judge: "Who are you? I want to know who you are."
"I do not respond to this so-called court, with all due respect to its people, and I retain my constitutional right as the president of Iraq," he said, brushing off the judge's attempts to interrupt him. "Neither do I recognize the body that has designated and authorized you, nor the aggression because all that has been built on false basis is false."
Judge Amin, a Kurd, tried to get Saddam to formally identify himself but Saddam refused and finally sat. Amin read his name for him, calling him the "former president of Iraq," bringing a protest from Saddam, insisting he was still in the post.
Later, Amin read the defendants their rights and then read the charges, which are the same for all the defendants, and told them they face possible execution if convicted.
The panel of five judges will both hear the case and render a verdict in what could be the first of several trials of Saddam for atrocities carried out during his 23-year-rule.
The defendants sat in three rows of black chairs, with Saddam in the first row, partitioned behind a low white metal barrier, in the center of the court directly in front of the judges' bench.
Starting the session, Amin called the defendants into the room one by one. Saddam was the last to enter, escorted by two Iraqi guards in bulletproof vests who guided him by the elbow. He glanced at journalists watching through bulletproof glass from an adjoining room. He motioned for his escorts to slow down a little.
After sitting, he greeted his co-defendants, saying "Peace be upon you," sitting next to co-defendant Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court.
The other defendants include Saddam's former intelligence chief Barazan Ibrahim, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan and other lower-level Baathist civil servants. Most were wearing traditional Arab robes and they complained that they were not allowed to have headdresses, so court officials brought out red headdresses for them. Many Sunni Arabs consider it shameful to appear in public without the checkered scarf, tied by a cord around the forehead.
Ramadan also refused to identify himself to the judge. "I repeat what President Saddam Hussein has said," he added. The other defendants stood one by one and stated their names.
The trial is taking place in the marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of his feared Baath Party. The building in Baghdad's Green Zone - the heavily fortified district where Iraq's government, parliament and the US Embassy are located - was ringed with 3-meter-high (10-foot) blast walls and US and Iraqi troops, with several Humvees and at least one tank deployed outside. US soldiers led sniffer dogs around the grounds, looking for explosives.
The identities of judges have been a tightly held secret to ensure their safety, though Amin's name was revealed on Wednesday just before the trial began.
The defendants are facing charges that they ordered the killing in 1982 of nearly 150 people in the mainly Shiite village of Dujail north of Baghdad after a failed attempt on the former dictator's life.
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