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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Hussein Tries the Role of Ruler in the Courtroom

The ousted dictator complains about 'occupiers' and tells the judge how to act.

November 29, 2005|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A combative Saddam Hussein lectured the judge and lashed out at his treatment by American "occupiers" as his murder trial resumed Monday and then adjourned for a week to allow a co-defendant to replace a slain lawyer.

The televised hearing lasted less than three hours but was long on drama. One of the deposed dictator's seven co-defendants complained of death threats. Another claimed that doctors were injecting him with poison. A third demanded treatment for cancer.

Throughout the second day of proceedings, Hussein took notes on a legal pad and at times interrupted lead Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin. When Amin came back from a recess, Hussein refused to stand until the judge admonished him to do so.

Chief prosecutor Jaafar Mousawi pleaded with the bench to start calling witnesses to the crime -- the killing of 146 people after a 1982 assassination attempt on Hussein in the village of Dujayl. It is the first of at least a dozen cases for which the former president could be tried by the new Iraqi High Tribunal.

But after hearing videotaped testimony from just one witness, Amin adjourned the trial until next Monday to give former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan time to find new counsel.

One of Ramadan's lawyers was killed and another was wounded in a drive-by shooting in the Iraqi capital three weeks ago, and on Monday he rejected a court-appointed substitute.

Security issues have weighed on the trial since its inaugural session, on Oct. 19, ended with a 40-day recess. The defense team shunned the court after the attack on Ramadan's attorneys and the Oct. 20 abduction and slaying of another defense lawyer. But their boycott ended last week after the court agreed to pay for bodyguards of the lawyers' choosing.

Two hours before Monday's session, a mortar shell landed harmlessly in the fortified Green Zone, where Hussein's old Baath Party headquarters has been turned into the courtroom where the trial is being held. Reporters and others entering the building had to undergo elaborate inspections, including 360-degree body scans.

On Sunday, police in the northern city of Kirkuk arrested 10 Sunni Muslim Arab men allegedly planning to assassinate the court's chief investigative judge, Raid Juhi, on the orders of an associate of Hussein's.

The trial has proved a divisive undertaking in Iraq, with Shiite Muslims and Kurds, the main victims of Hussein's repression, approving of the process and Sunni Arabs, who benefited from his rule, condemning it. Hundreds of people in Dujayl, a mostly Shiite village, demonstrated Monday in favor of Hussein's conviction and execution, whereas Sunnis in Tikrit, his hometown, rallied in his favor.

Defense lawyers contend that the tribunal, founded under a U.S. occupation decree and recognized only last month by Iraq's interim National Assembly, is illegal under a Geneva Convention statute forbidding occupying powers from creating courts.

To help make that case, the defense team brought former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark and former Qatari Justice Minister Najib Nuaimi into court Monday as advisors. They were shown on TV, but their Iraqi defense colleagues were not -- a move apparently aimed at protecting the Iraqi attorneys from attacks.

Nuaimi tried to read a written challenge to the court's legitimacy and a statement from Clark about security. The judge cut him off, saying those issues would be addressed later.

Clark, a 77-year-old civil rights lawyer with a controversial record of offering legal advice to toppled foreign leaders, listened intently through headphones to an English translation of the proceedings but did not intervene.

Later he told CNN that the defense team's security was still inadequate, in part because some details of it had been publicly disclosed. Unless the team is better protected, he said, "I don't see how the trial can go forward."

Amin mentioned the slain lawyers just once, voicing "deep sorrow" over their absence and calling for prayer. "The best way to show respect for them is to ensure the conduct of a fair and public trial," he said.

Hussein came ready to test the judge and provided much of the theatrics, as he did on the trial's first day.

Wearing a dark gray suit and white open-collared shirt and cradling a Koran under his right arm, the deposed leader swaggered into the room behind the other defendants six minutes after a bailiff had shouted his name.

To those around him, he cheerfully uttered a traditional Arabic greeting, "Peace be upon the people of peace." During a break, he joked with guards.

When Amin asked him to sign papers giving Clark and Nuaimi power of attorney, the former president seized the moment to deliver a Koranic verse and a litany of protest.

"Did you think that you would enter heaven without God's testing you?" he recited from the Islamic holy book.

He said he would sign the power of attorney, "but they took away my pen. And they took away the papers I need to defend myself" -- about 150 pages of handwritten notes on the case.

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