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Defendants dominate at Saddam's trial; case adjourned for a week

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Monday was supposed to be the day the chief prosecutor finally began presenting evidence against Saddam Hussein as the trial of the former dictator resumed after a six-week adjournment.

Instead, Saddam's defense dominated, so much so that the prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, complained that he wasn't getting time to make his case.

The events had legal experts, politicians and interested Iraqis alike wondering whether the court was capable of trying Saddam and his former advisers.

He and his co-defendants demanded everything from pen and paper to new legal representation. Saddam barked orders at the judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin. Saddam's half-brother Barazan Ibrahim revealed that he'd been diagnosed with cancer recently and accused the government of "indirect murder" by denying him proper medical care in jail.

At the end of the two-hour session, the judge adjourned the case for another week so that two of the eight defendants could get new lawyers.

"The tribunal was not up to the required level," al-Mousawi said afterward. "It was the opposite of what we planned for."

The judge, a Kurd, considered nearly all the defendants' requests, an effort to show that Saddam could get a fair trial in Iraq. That irritated several Shiite Muslim politicians, who said the judge's efforts were denying Iraqis a fair hearing for their grievances.

"The judge is giving too much leeway to Saddam. He should respect the Iraqis and the victims' feelings," said Ali Debagh, a Shiite National Assembly member who watched the trial from a VIP section in the courtroom.

Saddam and his seven co-defendants are charged with the 1982 killings of nearly 150 people, mostly Shiites, in Dujail, a small northern Iraqi city, after an assassination attempt against Saddam.

If convicted, Saddam could be executed, even before he faces charges for crimes in other pending cases.

The court saw two pieces of evidence Monday: a tape of Saddam shortly after the assassination attempt and a videotaped deposition from his then head of intelligence.

On a flat screen in front of the courtroom, al-Mousawi showed a discolored video of Saddam dressed in military gear ordering his henchman to "take away" two residents who'd just pleaded their innocence. The video, shot by a television station, has been played repeatedly on local television leading up to the trial.

The prosecutor then showed the videotaped testimony of a sickly Waddah al-Sheikh sitting in a wheelchair with feeding tubes and heart monitors attached to his body. The court obtained the testimony last month.

Al-Sheikh, the former head of intelligence and head of the al-Hakima jail, said he traveled to Dujail shortly after the assassination attempt and inspected the area behind a mud wall where Saddam's would-be assassins were positioned.

He said he thought that as many as 12 people had tried to assassinate Saddam, based on the empty magazines at the site. But Saddam's security forces arrested 400 people, al-Sheikh said.

"I don't know why this large number of people were arrested," he said.

Al-Sheikh said Ibrahim had ordered the arrests. He also said Saddam's bodyguards killed some people nearby, and that he didn't know if Saddam had any direct role in the arrests.

Al-Sheikh, who eventually became a venerable Baghdad lawyer, died days after his deposition.

The testimony was overshadowed by the actions of the eight defendants, who often addressed Amin directly, sometimes raising their hands to get his attention.

Saddam was often brazen. When the court asked him to approve his lawyer's request for three more attorneys—former U.S. Attorney Ramsey Clark, former Qatar Minister of Justice Najeeb Nauimi and Issam al-Ghazzawi—Saddam said he didn't have a pen to sign the document.

"How can a defendant defend himself when they take away even his pen and paper?" Saddam said.

Amin offered him some paper, but Saddam retorted: "Not blank paper. There are papers downstairs in the basement that have my opinions on them."

Al-Mousawi spoke only twice during the hearing. When he asked the court to let him present several witnesses who were waiting to testify, the judge told him he had to let the defendants speak.

Al-Mousawi appeared frustrated, leaning to the side in his chair as the defendants made their personal pleas before the judge.

The pace of Monday's hearing suggested to many Iraqis that the trial could take years, and some expressed impatience.

Bakhtyar Muhammed, a 30-year-old teacher in Sulaimaniyah, said he hoped the trial would wrap up soon. "It will give me relief when I see him sentenced to death."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Zaineb Obeid and Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this report from Baghdad, Saeed Omer from Sulaimaniyah.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.