By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
BAGHDAD, Nov. 28 -- Saddam Hussein, the dictator who once held the power of life and death over millions of Iraqis, was reduced Monday to squabbling over pens and paper during his trial on charges of ordering wholesale executions during his rule.
Scowling and jabbing, Hussein used the defendant's dock as a pulpit from which to lecture the judge on how to treat foreigners. He complained that while being brought to the courtroom by U.S. guards, he had been handcuffed, forced to walk up flights of stairs and stripped of papers and writing implements.
When the chief judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, said he would tell the guards to give him writing implements, Hussein thundered: "Don't tell them -- I want you to order them! They are foreigners and occupiers and invaders."
The grievances that led to Hussein's bluster paled in comparison with the charges that could send him to the hangman and with the symbolic importance of the trial to Iraq's stumbling new democracy. The ousted president left it to his lawyer to challenge the validity of the U.S.-engineered tribunal, and, outside the court, newly arrived co-counsel Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general, questioned the likelihood of Hussein getting a fair trial.
At the end of the day's proceedings, the trial was recessed until Dec. 5 to give some of Hussein's seven co-defendants time to find replacements for two defense attorneys who were assassinated after the initial court session almost six weeks ago. Some defense attorneys stayed away from the courtroom on Monday, apparently fearing that they, too, would be killed.
Monday's session featured the first testimony against Hussein -- a deathbed videotape of a witness, made without defense lawyers present, one of several trial procedures that legal ethicists have said they find troubling.
The witness, Wadah Ismail Sheik, a former investigator with Iraq's secret police, was shown in his hospital room, tubes and medical monitors strung from his arms, days before he died of cancer. He described how Hussein's bodyguards killed "many" residents of the town of Dujail in July 1982, after Hussein's convoy was attacked by gunmen hiding in a nearby orchard.
Hussein is charged with ordering the execution of 148 Shiite residents of Dujail to punish them for the attack. Prosecutors have said they will bring broader charges, ultimately involving hundreds of thousands of deaths under Hussein's rule, if he is not convicted and executed first.
Sheik described the roundup of more than 400 people in the town. Some were executed, and others spent several years in prison before being released. "The number of people who attacked the convoy did not exceed 12," he said. "I don't know why this large number of people were arrested."
The prosecution began its case with videotaped news clips of Hussein in Dujail after the assassination attempt. The clips showed a younger, uniformed Hussein coldly inspecting suspects, brushing aside their protestations of innocence. "Separate them for interrogation," he was shown saying brusquely.
During breaks in the trial, Hussein joked with his Iraqi guards and chatted amicably with his co-defendants, who are charged with helping carry out the punishment of Dujail. The men traded observations about the food and recreation areas in prison. "There's an eye on me 24 hours a day," Hussein was heard to complain.
During one afternoon break, Hussein read from a poem he had apparently composed during the morning sessions. "We help the weak, but when we strike, we strike the elite," the poem read in part.
Clark, who was attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, had rushed to Baghdad on Sunday with Najeeb Nauimi, a former Qatari justice minister, to join the defense. The 77-year-old Texan said nothing during the trial, while the judge wrestled with documentation that would admit him to the defense table. Court officials finally located a translator, who complained that Clark's legal rsum was in type too small to read. Clark finally volunteered a wallet identification card from the American Bar Association to prove his credentials as a lawyer.
Clark's entry into what was intended to be an Iraqi-only proceeding brought sharp criticism from a spokesman for the government, but Clark said after the day's events that he was there to do what he could to see that there was a fair trial, which he said was necessary for international legitimacy.
Ensuring fairness would be "extremely difficult," he said in an interview on CNN. "The passions in the country are at fever pitch. . . . How can you ask a witness to come in when there's a death threat?"
Hussein and his co-defendants sat in three pens surrounded by waist-high wooden railings in the center of the court. They were able to speak when they wished -- some raised their hands, as if in school, before voicing complaints.
"This judge is giving too much leeway to Saddam," grumbled Ali Dabagh, a National Assembly member watching the proceedings in the court's VIP section. "He should respect the Iraqis and the victims' feelings."
Indeed, in Dujail, 35 miles north of Baghdad, demonstrators held pictures of their slain relatives and demanded Hussein's swift execution. In counterpoint to this, Arabic television showed demonstrators in Tikrit, in Hussein's home region, chanting slogans of loyalty to the deposed ruler.
In the capital, the trial's resumption was greeted by a succession of explosions, a sign of the furtive insurgency that includes many Iraqis still loyal to Hussein. But in a possible indication that Hussein's effect on Iraqis is weakening, members of Iraq's National Assembly were meeting nearby, refusing to interrupt their work. One assembly member said it was crucial that the trial set a precedent in Iraq for judicial independence and fairness.
"Within our culture, no one is happy with the trial. Everybody wants to see Saddam Hussein hanged immediately," said Kassim Daoud, an independent assembly member from Najaf. "But through this trial, we are giving a civilized example that justice is justice and we can do it in a civilized way.
"The trial might have an effect of encouraging the insurgency," he acknowledged. "So far this morning there have been three" -- he was interrupted by a deep boom -- "make that four explosions."