By BASSEM MROUE
The Associated Press
Monday, November 6, 2006; 5:36 AM
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- It was nine stormy months of emotional outbursts, political harangues, boycotts, hunger strikes _ and murder.
The first trial of Saddam Hussein was a landmark event in Iraq and the Arab world: the prosecution of a feared and ferocious former president for the killing of 148 people from the Shiite town of Dujail in the early 1980s.
Some Iraqis had cried with joy or quaked with fear when Saddam first appeared on their television screens as a defendant on Oct. 19, 2005.
The testimony from witnesses who told of torture, blindfolds, murder was often harrowing.
Yet the trial degenerated several times into little more than a circus _ a revolving door of outbursts, chaos and political posturing by Saddam _ and sometimes overshadowed the brutality the witnesses described.
It all ended Sunday when the Iraqi High Tribunal convicted Saddam of crimes against humanity including murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. Yet the legal proceedings are not done. An appeals panel will further consider the case, far from the public eye. If it upholds the conviction, Saddam will be put to death.
Until then, he is likely to continue to appear routinely in court, during his separate trial for crimes against Kurds in 1987-88.
The Dujail trial started rocky _ with Saddam challenging the authority of the court and the chief judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin. Two defense lawyers also were killed and a third wounded in the trial's opening weeks.
Throughout, Saddam interrupted witnesses, tried to rally Iraqis against the Americans, and along with his half brother, another defendant, raged against what they said was the illegitimacy of the court, their ill treatment in the U.S.-run facility where they are being held and the lack of protection for their lawyers.
The issue of security remained troubling throughout. A third defense counsel was killed in June, reflecting the growing sectarian violence engulfing Iraq. But the defense team rejected the guards offered by the Interior Ministry.
The judge issue also proved pivotal. After Shiite complaints that Rizgar was too lenient, he was replaced in January 2006 by Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman. On his first hearing, the new judge threw out two defendants and a defense attorney, and two other accused and the defense team walked out in protest.
The accused and their attorneys then began a series of boycotts, but the trial ground on.
In early March, a defiant Saddam told the court he had ordered the trial of the 148 Shiites who were eventually executed, but he insisted it was legal because they had been suspected of trying to assassinate him.
"Where is the crime? Where is the crime?" he asked, standing before the five judges.
Saddam's half brother, Barzan Ibrahim, also engaged in courtroom theatrics, including coming to court in long underwear and sitting on the floor with his back to the judge.
Ibrahim insulted the judge often, but was still able to make him laugh. After Ibrahim spoke for three hours, Abdul-Rahman asked if he were done. Ibrahim replied: "I haven't started yet."
Yet, overall, the trial's gravity was undeniable. Witnesses gave graphic accounts of the brutalities of Saddam's rule, often testifying from behind a curtain because they feared retribution.
As the hearings drew to a close, defense counsel said they had not been given a fair chance to present their case, and had been unable to consult their clients for 58 days _ a reminder of the fairness question that had hung over the trial from the start.
Three weeks before the judges adjourned for the verdict, Saddam and three other accused went on hunger strike to protest the trial's conduct and the lack of security for the lawyers. Saddam was hospitalized on the 17th day of his hunger strike and fed through a tube.
Back in court, where he said he was forced to return by his American guards, Saddam told the judges that if they did sentence him to death, he would rather die by firing squad than hang "like a common criminal."