Saddam Hussein, who had vowed not to attend his trial Wednesday, skipped the session after receiving permission from the court, officials said, while witnesses offered grim accounts of brutal punishments meted out to residents of an Iraqi village in 1982, when Hussein was president.
Hussein requested a delay Tuesday, complaining that he was exhausted by the court session, and cursed the chief judge when his plea was rejected. But in a session closed to the public Wednesday, Hussein politely asked the five-judge panel to be excused, according to Jaafar Mousawi, the chief prosecutor.
"This was one of his rights, so it was accepted," Mousawi said.
Hussein promised to be in court when the trial resumes Dec. 21 after a two-week break for the Iraqi National Assembly elections, according to the chief investigating judge, Raeed Juhi. Hussein's attorneys and his seven co-defendants attended the session Wednesday.
With Hussein's seat empty, the court finished hearing testimony from nine witnesses who described the mass punishment at Dujail, a farming village 35 miles north of Baghdad, after Hussein's convoy was attacked by gunmen hiding in a nearby orchard.
The witnesses described how entire families were rounded up and imprisoned, most held for three to four years. They offered testimony about people disappearing, beatings, electric shock and years spent in squalid prisons, including Abu Ghraib, the site of much-publicized detainee abuses at the hands of the U.S. military, which took it over after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
A witness identified only as "W" who was confined for 11/2 years at Abu Ghraib said that an intelligence agent visited him during his detention and promised that his suffering would end soon. "Don't worry. Your execution is very near. I will kill you myself, with this pistol," the agent said, according to the witness.
Hussein is charged with ordering the execution of more than 140 men and boys from the village. But there has been no direct testimony so far about the massacre, and the defense argued that the witnesses have not linked it directly to Hussein and the other defendants.
"Did you see anyone killed in front of you?" a defense attorney demanded of the witness identified as W. "You say you didn't see anyone killed, so why are you charging Saddam?"
"He destroyed our homes," the witness replied. "Doesn't he deserve a punishment?"
One of the defendants, Taha Yassin Ramadan, who served as vice president until Hussein's government was overthrown in 2003, called the charges ridiculous.
"As of yesterday, none of the witnesses have mentioned my name," he said. "Do they have witnesses? Witnesses who saw me? I can prove I wasn't in those places."
In Hussein's absence Wednesday, his half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim, took center stage among the defendants. Ibrahim told the court that his treatment in U.S. custody was similar to what the witnesses described as the conditions in prisons during the Hussein era.
"Talking about lack of food. We have been experiencing the same thing. I lost 18 kilos," or nearly 40 pounds, Ibrahim said. "The food given to us is of very bad quality. As for the exercise, for nine months I was in a solitary prison cell two meters by two meters. There is no window, no electricity, not even a door. I didn't know night from day. There was no shower, no water, no tea, no nothing."
The defendants are being held in U.S. custody, usually at a military base outside of Baghdad.
"This is America doing this -- the great America," Ibrahim said. "America, Iraq, prisons are all the same."