Saddam, co-defendants forced to attend latest session of trial

Defense lawyers boycott proceedings, allege that chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman is biased against their clients.

iraq judge abdel-rahman (photo credit: AP)
iraq judge abdel-rahman
(photo credit: AP)
Saddam Hussein was forced to attend the latest session of his trial Monday, looking haggard and wearing a robe rather than his usual crisp suit as he shouted, "Down with Bush." His top co-defendant struggled with guards bringing him into the court. Saddam and his seven co-defendants had vowed not to attend the trial until the return of their lawyers. The defense team are boycotting the proceedings until chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman is removed, alleging he is biased against their clients. Saddam entered the courtroom on his own at the start of Monday's session, but he looked weary and argued immediately with the judge, shouting slogans against US President George W. Bush. "They have forcibly brought me here," he told Abdel-Rahman. "Exercise your right to try me in absentia. Are you trying to overcome your own smallness?" "The law will be implemented," Abdel-Rahman shouted back at Saddam and his co-defendant Barzan Ibrahim. Before taking his seat, Saddam shouted, "Down with the agents. Down with Bush. Long live the nation." He carried a Quran and wore a blue galabeya - a traditional Arab robe - with a black overcoat, a stark contrast to the tailored black suits he has worn to past sesssions. Ibrahim, shouting angrily, struggled with guards who led him into the courtroom by his arms. He argued with the judge, demanding he be released from detention to receive treatment for cancer. "I am dying gradually and you are killing me," he said. Abdel-Rahman ordered a medical examination for Ibrahim and told him to sit down. But Ibrahim refused and sat on the floor with his back to the judge. Ibrahim, Saddam's half-brother and former intelligence chief, wore a long-sleeved white undershirt and was bare-headed, in contrast to past sessions when he wore an Arab headscarf, which he had insisted to the court that he be allowed to put on to preserve his dignity. During the first half-hour, Saddam and Ibrahim argued with Abdel-Rahman, and a half-dozen guards - more than usual - stood close to the pen where the defendants were sitting. "Can a court force a defendant to attend a court without lawyers?" Saddam argued. "The lawyers are here," Abdel-Rahman said, referring to court-appointed lawyers, whom the defendants have rejected. "I am implementing laws put in place under your rule." "The court did not throw out your lawyers. They did not attend," he shouted at Saddam. Abdel-Rahman took over as chief judge last month, taking a tough stance to impose order after his predecessor resigned amid criticism over tumultuous proceedings marked by frequent, profane outbursts by Saddam and Ibrahim. The defense team walked out Jan. 29 after Abdel-Rahman threw one of their colleagues out of the courtroom. Saddam and three co-defendants were allowed to leave or were forcibly removed, and the judge appointed replacements for the defense lawyers. In the following session Feb. 1, only three defendants attended. None showed up the next day and Saddam's lawyers have said they will continue to boycott the trial as long as Abdel-Rahman is on the bench. The defense claims that Abdel-Rahman is unfit to try the case because he was sentenced to life in absentia in the 1970s for anti-state activity. Saddam became president in 1979, but was Iraq's most powerful man for several years before that. Court officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to comment on judicial conduct, said Abdel-Rahman must formally address the issue of his fitness because the defense has filed a motion for his removal, citing his opposition to Saddam's regime. The trial was resuming Monday after an 11-day adjournment. Saddam and his seven co-defendants are on trial in the killing of nearly 150 Shi'ite Muslims after the former ruler survived a 1982 assassination attempt in Dujail north of Baghdad. If convicted, they could face the death penalty by hanging. Twenty-six prosecution witnesses have testified since the trial began Oct. 19, many providing heart-wrenching accounts of torture and imprisonment in the crackdown launched in the wake of the assassination attempt. But none directly linked Saddam to their ordeal. For Monday's session, prosecutors are trying to make the link, slating two witnesses from within Saddam's regime for the first time. One of them was Ahmed Hussein Khudayer, who was the head of Saddam's presidential office from 1995 until the regime's fall in April 2003. Khudayer was close to Saddam until the end, attending a planning session with Saddam and his top military officials on April 9, 2003, two days before US troops swept into Baghdad. Also due to testify was Hassan al-Obeidi, a former intelligence official, court officials said before Monday's session. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the plans for the day. Court officials said witnesses expected in the coming days would attempt to "connect the dots" to establish a clear chain of command from the security officials who carried out torture and executions to Saddam. The officials said the witnesses were not offered immunity in exchange for their testimony. Khudayer took his post in the presidential office more than a decade after the events in Dujail. But prosecutors may believe he has inside knowledge of Saddam's regime that can link the former president to the actions of his security and intelligence officials.