By LEE KEATH and SINAN SALAHEDDIN
The Associated Press
Thursday, May 25, 2006; 3:39 PM
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In the stormy trial of Saddam Hussein, the defense strategy is shaping up as a two-pronged argument that the regime was justified in its crackdown on Shiites and that the prosecution is blaming the wrong people for carrying it out.
But in two weeks of testimony, the defense has yet to lay a glove on the most damning prosecution evidence: a trove of documents detailing how entire families were imprisoned and children as young as 11 were executed. All are dotted with the signatures of defendants, including Saddam.
Meanwhile, the head of the judge's panel that will decide Saddam's fate is showing increasing anger at the defense tactic of casting doubt on the court's fairness.
"You don't have a defense plan, so you just insult the court," chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman shouted at lawyers Wednesday. "Defend your clients, don't insult the court. It does no good for your clients."
Convincing Abdel-Rahman and the four other judges is key because they _ not a jury _ will give the verdicts for Saddam and his seven co-defendants. The judges also will decide whether to send them to the gallows if convicted.
Under the Iraqi system, the burden of proof effectively is on the defense: Abdel-Rahman, not prosecutors, determined the charges last week, based on what the prosecution has presented in the 7-month-old trial.
He accused all eight defendants of crimes against humanity, including arresting hundreds of Shiite men, women and children from the town of Dujail, torturing some to death, and wrongfully sentencing 148 Shiites to death after a 1982 assassination attempt on Saddam.
So far _ amid the daily tumult of shouting and outbursts _ the defense has shown a big disadvantage. Its strongest witnesses have been former officials from Saddam's regime, likely to be viewed with deep skepticism by the judges. And others have had little relevance to the charges, appearing instead as character witnesses.
Telling the court the client is a good man may be some help for the four low-level defendants, all local Baath Party officials. But it's unlikely to do any good for Saddam and other top-ranking figures.
On Wednesday, Saddam's former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, gave probably the most cohesive presentation so far of the defense's main argument.
Aziz testified that the regime had no choice but to strike at Dujail, as Shiite guerrillas had tried to kill the president and Dujail was believed to be a hot spot for the anti-Saddam Shiite underground. Also, the gunmen were backed by Iran, at a time when the two countries were locked in a bloody war, he said.
"It was an assassination attempt against the president," Aziz said. "If the head of state comes under attack, the state is required by law to take action. If the suspects are caught with weapons, it's only natural they should be arrested and put on trial."
To reinforce the claim, the defense put forward a string of bodyguards with Saddam at the time of the shooting to testify that it was a serious attack.
The other main defense argument has been that prosecutors simply have the wrong men.
Again, that might work for the low-level defendants, accused of informing on Dujail residents. Relatives and Dujail neighbors have testified that the defendants did not participate in the arrests, were elsewhere at the time or were themselves hurt in the sweep when their farmlands were among those razed.
The defense will likely have a tougher time using that argument with former Mukhabarat intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim and former Revolutionary Command Council Taha Yassin Ramadan, who headed a Baath Party militia.
Aziz and other witnesses, as well as Ibrahim and Ramadan themselves, have insisted Saddam did not order the two to carry out the Dujail crackdown. But the prosecution has presented documents showing prisoners were held at the Mukhabarat headquarters and that Saddam approved rewards for Mukhabarat agents.
A string of prosecution witnesses also testified they saw both men overseeing the wave of arrests. One Dujail woman gave powerful testimony that Ibrahim not only oversaw her torture but also ordered her hung naked by her hands and kicked her in the stomach.
As for Saddam, he sabotaged any possible "Not Me" defense by standing up in court to proclaim he ordered the 148 Shiites put on trial and signed off on their death sentences. Instead, his entire argument is self-defense _ that as head of state, he alone should be accountable for Dujail and that he is blameless for quashing a threat to his life.
That would be an effective stance, international law expert Michael Scharf said, if not for the documents showing the Dujail crackdown went far beyond anyone reasonably suspected in the assassination attempt.
Those documents are packed with names of 399 prisoners, many of them women, many obviously related, showing entire families were swept up.
The defense's only response has been to insist the documents are forged. After Iraqi handwriting experts authenticated signatures on documents _ including Saddam's _ the defense argued they were biased and demanded a neutral, international panel of experts.
The judges ignored that request, which could be part of any later appeal. Another possible appeal argument could be Abdel-Rahman's refusal to recuse himself after the defense called him biased because he is a Kurd, has relatives who were killed under Saddam, and was himself sentenced in absentia by the regime for opposition activity.
Scharf, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law who helped train the Saddam court's judges and prosecutors, said he won't be surprised to see some acquittals, particularly of low-level defendants.
Salaheddin reported from Baghdad and Keath from Cairo, Egypt.