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A New Judge but Same Old Drama in Hussein Trial

Defense lawyers walk out. The former Iraqi leader, after an outburst, is removed from court.

September 21, 2006|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — On his first day in charge, the judge watched the entire defense team walk out in protest. He then argued loudly with the main defendant before throwing him out.

In most other courtrooms, such goings-on would have raised eyebrows. But in the genocide trial of Saddam Hussein and six codefendants, theatrics and shenanigans are par for the course.

On Wednesday, Judge Mohammed Orabi Khalefa replaced Judge Abdullah Amiri, who had been accused by the prosecution of favoring the defense. The Iraqi government removed Amiri as head judge late Tuesday, a step Human Rights Watch and other groups fear could jeopardize the fairness of the tribunal.

The proceedings were barely underway Wednesday when Khalefa faced his first confrontation. Badie Aref, a defense lawyer, stood up.

"I want to withdraw from this court," he said.

He was followed by Wadud Fawsi, another defense lawyer, who read a statement on behalf of the defense team.

"The government is interfering in this trial and impacting its credibility," Fawsi said. "Since we doubt the credibility of this court, we decided to withdraw."

Khalefa told them, "You can go ahead," and the entire defense team walked out.

The judge then called in five court-appointed lawyers to represent the defendants, but Hussein stood up and complained about the change.

"You do not have the right to speak," the judge said sternly. Hussein shouted back, "You should listen to my opinion!" as he banged on the rail in front of him.

"I am the presiding judge, and I will decide who to listen to," Khalefa said.

Guards escorted Hussein out of the courtroom as the judge yelled, "Take him out, take him out!"

The other defendants, including Hussein's cousin, Ali Hassan Majid, said they wanted to follow the former president, but the judge refused to let them.

Afterward, Kurdish villagers testified about chemical attacks. The defendants are accused of orchestrating a brutal military offensive known as the Anfal campaign that killed as many as 100,000 Kurds in northern Iraq in 1987 and 1988.

The case has been as dramatic as a previous trial in which Hussein and seven codefendants were charged with killing 148 Shiites from the town of Dujayl after a 1982 assassination attempt against him. A verdict in that case is expected next month.

Judges were reshuffled in those proceedings as well after the head jurist resigned, citing "pressure."

Amiri, a Shiite Muslim, angered Kurdish and Shiite politicians last week when, during an exchange with Hussein, he said the former leader was "not a dictator."

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Cabinet transferred Amiri to a post with Iraq's Supreme Judiciary Council.

The move was necessary to preserve the neutrality of the tribunal hearing Hussein's case, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said in a statement.

Khalefa is also a Shiite, born in southern Iraq. He was a judge during Hussein's rule.

A U.S. official familiar with the proceedings said the judicial switch was not final. The official, who requested anonymity, said the change still had to be approved by Iraq's presidential council, despite earlier reports that President Jalal Talabani had given it his blessing.

Khalefa is the ranking member of a five-judge panel. If the council approves the switch, the panel will vote to decide who will occupy the top bench, the official said.

"It's clear that this is a very high-profile, high-pressure, difficult job to do," the official said.

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louise.roug@latimes.com

Times staff writer Raheem Salman contributed to this report.

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