Saddam trial degenerates into chaos on debut of new judge

BAGHDAD (AP) — A new chief judge moved to crack down in a chaotic session of Saddam Hussein’s trial Sunday, forcibly expelling a defendant and a defence lawyer. The defence team walked out in protest and Saddam was removed after shouting “down with America” and arguing with the judge.
Despite the turmoil, chief judge, Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman, pushed ahead with the proceedings, replacing the defence lawyers with court-appointed attorneys, hearing three prosecution witnesses and insisting the trial will go on.

It was Abdel-Rahman’s first session at the helm, replacing a jurist who stepped down amid criticism that he was not doing enough to stop Saddam and his half- brother, co-defendant Barzan Ibrahim, from dominating the trial with frequent outbursts and disruptions.

Defence lawyers denounced his tough approach, saying it was preventing Saddam and his co-defendants from getting a fair trial.

Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is part of Saddam’s defence team but did not attend Sunday’s session, denounced the court as “lawless” and repeated calls for it to be moved out of Iraq.

“Now the court is seated without the defendants’ counsel of choice. This is wrong,” Clark said, speaking from New York.

Abdel-Rahman wasted little time to show he was different from his predecessor, telling the court at the start of the proceedings that anyone who broke the rules would be thrown out.

The session rapidly degenerated into chaos. Ibrahim called the court “the daughter of a whore” and refused to sit down. Abdel-Rahman ordered him removed, and Ibrahim scuffled with two guards before they dragged him out of the courtroom.

Then defence lawyer Salih Armouti, a Jordanian who recently joined Saddam’s defence team, was forcibly removed from the court for yelling at Abdel-Rahman.

The entire defence team then walked out in protest. “This is an unjust and illegitimate court,” Khalil Dulaimi, Saddam’s chief defence lawyer, told the judge on the way out.

Protesting Barzan’s expulsion and shouting “Down with traitors” and “Down with America,” Saddam got into a heated argument with the judge, rejecting the court-appointed lawyers and demanding to leave.

When the judge ordered guards to remove him, Saddam — holding a Koran under his arm — became indignant, saying he was choosing to go.

“For 35 years I led you, and you say, ‘Eject him?”‘ he said, referring to his time as Iraq’s president.

“I am a judge and you are a defendant,” Abdel-Rahman replied. “And you have violated order in the court. I am implementing the law.” After two more defendants asked to leave, the trial continued — with only four of the eight defendants present and none of their original lawyers.

The court-appointed lawyers declined opportunities to cross examine the witnesses.

Richard Dicker, the head of the International Justice Programme at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said their failure to question the witnesses was “probably the most disturbing part of the day.” “The events take us further away from the basic practices of fairness that are necessary in any trial and especially in a trial of this significance,” he said.

Ibrahim’s comments were “clearly provocative and disrespectful,” but that Abdel-Rahman was “a little too trigger-happy,” he told AP.

Raid Juhi, the court’s investigating judge and spokesman, said Abdel-Rahman acted within the law to maintain order.

The defence team can petition to return, and “the court will look into any such request,” he told reporters at the court.

Some Iraqis praised Abdel-Rahman for imposing control on a court that they said had gotten out of hand under his predecessor, Rizgar Mohammed Amin.

Saeed Hammash, a former member of the five-judge panel hearing the case who was removed in the shakeup that brought in Abdel-Rahman, said Ibrahim had been trying to derail the session. “The judge’s decision was right when he threw him out of the court,” he said.

It was the latest drama in a trial already beset by long delays, the assassination of two defence lawyers and the controversy over the change in judges ahead of Sunday’s session.

Critics have said the turmoil gives credence to claims that Saddam cannot get a fair trial in a country torn apart by ethnic, religious and tribal divisions and an insurgency comprising large numbers of his supporters.

Michael Scharf, an international law professor who helped train judges for the Saddam trial, said Abdel-Rahman has to walk a “tightrope” between maintaining order and fairness.

“The risk is that the judge’s tactics will be viewed as too heavy handed and therefore unfair,” Scharf, head of the international law centre at Case Western Reserve University, said.

If he clamps down too hard and Saddam refuses to attend the proceedings, “the trial will lose even more credibility,” he said. So Raouf must balance between “maintaining a greater degree of control … and at the same time giving Saddam enough of an opportunity to make political speeches from time to time” to ensure he remains in court.

After a 4 1/2 hour session and testimony from three prosecution witnesses, Abdel-Rahman adjourned until Wednesday or Thursday, depending on when the Islamic new year’s holiday falls.

Saddam, Ibrahim and six other defendants are on trial for the killing of at least 140 Shiites after a July 1982 attempt on Saddam’s life in the town of Dujail north of Baghdad. If convicted, the eight could face death by hanging.

Sunday’s session was the first since December 22 and only the eighth since the trial’s start.

When order was finally restored after the tumultous start, the three prosecution witnesses — two women and a man — gave their testimony from behind a beige curtain and with their voices distorted to hide their identities.

They all spoke of mass detentions and torture after the attempt on Saddam’s life.

The first witness, a woman, told the court how she was arrested several days after the assassination attempt. She said her interrogators removed her Islamic headscarf and gave her electric shocks to her head.

“I thought my eyes would pop out,” she said. Sixteen other members of her family were also arrested, and seven of them were killed in detention — including her husband, who she said was tortured to death. “I could not feed my little girl as she cried, there was no milk and no nursing bottle, she almost died,” she said of her child, who was less than two months old on the day of her arrest.

The third witness told the court that he was only six when he was arrested while playing at his aunt’s home with cousins. At the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, guards lured him and other children with promises of apples and bananas only to tie them by the feet, he said.

The second witness said and 14 other members of her family, including children as young as seven months, were rounded up from Dujail and gave a heart wrenching accounts of torture.

“They tortured a young girl who was blind. Women and children were crying, there was no food and no milk formula for children.

“Has anything like that ever happened anywhere in the world?” she asked as sobbed.

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