Former president Saddam Hussein was brought before an Iraqi judge on Thursday and was formally accused of ordering mass killings and other atrocities while he ruled this nation, but he refused to recognize the court and insisted he was still the leader of Iraq.
Hussein's 26-minute court appearance, similar to an arraignment in the United States, was the first step in a lengthy process aimed at putting him on trial for crimes against humanity, genocide and other offenses. He was followed by 11 of his top former deputies, who were accused of roles in many of the same atrocities.
Hussein's presence before the court was intended to be a brief procedural formality, a chance for the investigating judge to inform the former president of his status as a criminal defendant and of his rights to legal counsel. But Hussein stretched the proceeding into a 26-minute event replete with feisty exchanges with the judge, who sat behind a wooden desk just a few feet away.
Hussein questioned the judge's credentials. He insisted he deserved immunity because he had been acting in an official capacity. And he challenged the legitimacy of the special tribunal set up to judge him and his associates, saying that "everyone knows this is theater by [President] Bush, the criminal, in an attempt to win the election."
When he walked into the small courtroom, escorted by two burly Iraqi bailiffs, he appeared a diminished man. His meaty build had grown thinner even than at the time of his capture by U.S. forces near Tikrit on Dec. 13. The shaggy beard and unkempt mane he grew during eight months as a fugitive had been trimmed. Instead of the posh Italian suits he once wore, he was clad in off-the-rack slacks and a sport coat purchased by the U.S. military for his court appearance.
Although Hussein, 67, looked nervous and confused as he entered, his eyes darting warily at the judge and two dozen spectators in the room, his mood quickly shifted to one of exasperation and contempt, then to outright defiance and anger. After a few hesitant minutes at the outset, he peppered the judge with skeptical questions and recalcitrant answers. His sullen demeanor quickly gave way to finger-wagging, animated hand gestures, hectoring comments and contemplative stroking of his salt-and-pepper beard.
The 11 other defendants, who included former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz and former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, were far less combative than Hussein. Some of them remained visibly fearful throughout their brief appearances, invoking God on repeated occasions. All of them signed a document acknowledging they had been read their legal rights, something Hussein refused to do.
Like Hussein, many of them appeared far different than they had during their days in power. Ali Hassan Majeed, also known as Chemical Ali for allegedly giving the orders to use chemical weapons against Kurdish separatists in the late 1980s, used a walking stick to enter the courtroom. Aziz, known for his fiery debates on American television talk shows, sat with his shoulders hunched forward, his head down, his hands clasped. The once cleanshaven former presidential secretary, Abid Hamid Mahmud, showed up with a 10-inch-long beard.
[Two nearly simultaneous blasts reverberated across Baghdad just after 7:30 a.m. on Friday. One of the explosions was caused by an apparent car bomb adjacent to Firdaus Square, where jubilant Iraqis pulled down a statue of Hussein in April 2003, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.]
The proceedings were conducted on the grounds of one of Hussein's former palaces. The opulent collection of buildings, surrounded by an artificial lake near the Baghdad airport, is now a U.S. military base called Camp Victory. Hussein's appearance, which was videotaped but not broadcast live, gave Iraqis their first look at their former ruler since his capture by U.S. soldiers seven months ago.
It was not possible for journalists to obtain a full English translation of the proceeding on Thursday because the judge, whose name was not announced for security reasons, ordered that audio recordings of the proceedings not be released immediately. A small pool of journalists in the room took notes, but their accounts of the exchanges between Hussein and the judge had slight variations. Some television networks also broadcast short portions of the proceeding with sound from footage provided by a CNN camera in the courtroom.
There were fewer than 30 people in the chamber. Other than the journalists, there were a handful of Iraqis present, including a representative of the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and the president of the tribunal, Salem Chalabi.
"It demonstrates that the accountability process is starting," Chalabi said of Thursday's proceedings. "For a long time people did not believe this, but it has happened. A psychological barrier has been broken."
Despite differences in some reports from the courtroom, there was no mistaking the strident attitude of the former president, who asserted that he had been "elected by the people" and asked the judge at one point, "What law formed this court?"
Hussein, who is being held in a U.S.-run detention facility at an undisclosed location, was brought to the court in an armored bus with blacked-out windows escorted by U.S. soldiers. But when he entered the courthouse, handcuffed to a chain around his waist, uniformed U.S. military personnel withdrew so Hussein would see only Iraqi guards. As he was led to the courtroom, people inside could hear the clanking of his chains, which were removed only when he was outside the wooden door to the chamber.
The proceeding began with the judge asking the former president to state his name. "I am Saddam Hussein, president of the Republic of Iraq," he responded.
When the judge asked whether he was the former president of Iraq, Hussein insisted that he was the "present" and "current" president.
He then was asked a series of questions: Where was he born? Was he once the leader of the Baath Party? Was he once the leader of the armed forces?
He responded to some questions verbally and shook his head affirmatively to others. He also demanded that the judge introduce himself. The judge informed Hussein that he was the investigating judge for Iraq's special tribunal, set up to try cases of major crimes committed while Hussein was president.
"You are representing the occupying forces?" Hussein asked.
"No," responded the judge. "I'm an Iraqi representing Iraq." He went on to say he had been appointed as a judge "by a presidential decree under the former regime," meaning by Hussein himself, and was resuming his duties.
Hussein made his most defiant comments after the judge read a list of seven atrocities the former president is alleged to have ordered: the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988; the killing of members of a prominent Kurdish family, the Barzani clan, in 1983; the murder of political party leaders over a 30-year period; the murder of religious leaders; a campaign of brutal attacks against Kurds in the 1980s; the violent suppression of Kurds and Shiites after the 1991 Persian Gulf War; and the event that prompted that war, Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. When the judge mentioned Kuwait, Hussein became agitated.
"I'm surprised you're charging me with this as an Iraqi, when everyone knows Kuwait is part of Iraq," Hussein told the judge, repeating an argument that his government used to justify the invasion. Hussein asserted later in the hearing that he was protecting the Iraqi people from Kuwaiti "dogs." He charged that oil-rich Kuwait had been turning Iraqi women into "10-dinar prostitutes" and that he had sought to "defend Iraqi honor" and revive Iraq's "historical rights" to Kuwait.
The judge cut him off, saying, "You are in a legal hearing and we will not allow you to speak in any way that is disrespectful to this court."
Later, when he was told that he could have a court-appointed lawyer if he could not afford one, Hussein scoffed. "According to the Americans," he said, "I have millions of dollars in Geneva, so I should be able to afford one."
At the end of the proceeding, after the judge had informed him of his rights, including the right to be represented by a lawyer and the right to remain silent, Hussein refused to sign a brief document indicating that he had been read his rights.
"Please allow me not to sign until the lawyers are present," he said. "Anyhow, when you take a procedure to bring me here again, present me all these papers with the presence of lawyers. Why would you have me behave in a manner that we might call it hasty later on?"
In one finger-wagging exchange, Hussein told the judge: "It doesn't really matter whether you convict me or not. That's not what's important. But what is important is that you remember that you're a judge. Don't mention anything about the occupying forces. This is not good. Judge in the name of people. This is the Iraqi way."
Legal analysts say the most likely path to a conviction of Hussein for committing genocide or crimes against humanity is to establish his command responsibility for the institutions of Iraqi government, including the military, and the security services that killed thousands of ordinary Iraqis from 1968 to 2003.
In Washington, a former senior administrator of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority said Thursday that during Hussein's seven months in captivity, he provided "very little, almost nothing" during interrogations. He also did not provide any information on his government's relationship with al Qaeda or other extremist groups in the Middle East, U.S. officials said.
Hussein was so uncooperative that senior U.S. officials in Iraq concluded that neither he nor his aides were going to be helpful, according to the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing White House ground rules.
If convicted, Hussein and his deputies could face the death penalty.
References to the death penalty provision in Iraqi law, mentioned several times during Thursday's proceedings, appeared to unnerve several of the defendants.
Chalabi said he planned to speak with Hussein and the 11 other men, who now are in Iraqi legal custody, over the next few days to arrange legal representation. He said additional hearings before an investigative judge could be held within a few weeks, but he has said that it could take months before any of them are formally indicted. Trials are not expected to begin until late this year or early next year.
The court appearances for each of the 11 other men were far shorter than Hussein's. They all followed a similar script, with the judge reading out the crimes they are accused of committing and the defendants making various proclamations of innocence. Most of them also asked for non-Iraqi Arab lawyers to represent them.
After the judge told Majeed that he was being investigated in connection with the Halabja massacre, the invasion of Kuwait and the suppression of the 1991 Shiite uprising, he seemed almost relieved. "I'm happy with the accusations put forward because I'm innocent of them," he said. Later, as he walked out of the courtroom, he told national security adviser Mowaffak Rubaie that he was pleased.
Rubaie quoted Majeed as saying: "I thought the charges would be much worse."
Aziz, who was accused of "deliberate killings" in 1979 and 1991, sought to draw a distinction between personal acts and command responsibility. "If I am a member of a government that made a mistake in killing someone, there can't be a direct personal accusation against me. If there is a crime, the moral responsibility rests with the leadership, but a member of the leadership cannot be held personally responsible. I never killed anybody by any direct act."
After Hussein's appearance was finished, he was escorted out of the courtroom by two guards. As they grabbed him by the arms, he admonished them.
"Take it easy," he said. "I'm an old man."
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.