Judge declares end to hearing of defence witnesses in Saddam trial

BAGHDAD (AP) — The judge declared an end the defence phase of Saddam Hussein’s trial on Tuesday, shrugging off protests from the former Iraqi leader’s lawyers that they haven’t had a fair chance to present their case and want to put more witnesses on the stand.

The nearly eight-month-old trial now moves into closing arguments, with the prosecution starting Monday, followed by the defence starting on July 10.

That means the judges could call a recess as early as mid-July to consider verdicts in the case against Saddam and seven of his former regime members for alleged crimes against humanity.

The eight could face execution by hanging if convicted on charges they ordered and carried out a crackdown on Shiites in the town of Dujail in the 1980s, arrested hundreds including women and children, tortured some to death and killed 148 people accused of a shooting attack on Saddam in the town.

It is not known how long the judges’ deliberations will take.

But the judge’s declaration Tuesday suggests the court is pushing to wrap up what has been a tumultuous trial — with two defence lawyers killed early on, the replacement of the chief judge halfway through and frequent scenes of shouting and defendants or defence lawyers being hustled out of the courtroom by guards.

One of the top co-defendants, former intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim, was barred for attending Tuesday’s session after the judge threw him out of the court the day before for arguing.

Many in Iraq’s Shiite majority and Kurdish minority, in particular, are eager to see Saddam go to the gallows after his regime’s repression of their communities.

But it could take months even if such a verdict and sentence are handed down: The defendants have a right to appeal, and Saddam is due to be put on a second trial for a military campaign against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s.

Questions of fairness are also likely to dog a tribunal that US and Iraqi officials had hoped would show that justice can heal the Sunni-Shiite rifts left by Saddam’s regime. Many Sunnis see the trial more as a case of “victors’ justice” implemented by Iraq’s new Shiite and Kurdish leaders, backed by the Americans.

The defence on Tuesday pressed its protests that it has been at a severe disadvantage throughout the trial. But they were perfunctorily cut off by chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman, who declared that the defence case was over.

When one of Saddam’s lawyer’s, Khamis Obeidi, said he wanted to bring more “effective and useful” witnesses to the stand, Abdel-Rahman told him: “For your client alone, you’ve presented 26 witnesses. If after 26 witnesses you can’t prove his innocence — according to your words — then 100 witnesses will be the same situation.”

“I have finished with hearing witnesses. You have presented your testimony. We will evaluate it, we will examine every word said, and God willing it will be fine,” he said.

“God willing,” Obeidi said sullenly.

Abdel-Rahman has previously told the defence he is not required to accept all their witnesses, only those he believes to be relevant to the case. Many of the witnesses have repeated similar testimonies — including three former Saddam bodyguards who took the stand Tuesday.

Since taking over the trial in January, Abdel-Rahman has taken a tough line to put down the frequent outbusts by Saddam and Ibrahim that many observers criticised his predecessor for allowing. But he has also shut down defence attempts to question the fairness of court procedures — raising accusations that he is biased.

When defence lawyers argued Tuesday that they haven’t had the freedom to present their case properly, Abdel-Rahman was dismissive.

“We haven’t been able to consult with our clients alone,” lawyer Wadud Fawzi said. “For 58 days we haven’t been able to even meet with our clients … We can’t exchange any documents with them, and that is an impediment to the defence.”

Chief defense lawyer Khalil Duleimi complained that investigating judges who gather evidence for the trial have failed to provide documents the defence requested “that could help acquit our clients.”

“The defence team does not have the capability to search out documents, and the investigators have not agreed to gather the documents the defence has requested,” he said.

“This is a basic element of the case. Get to the point, get to the point,” Abdel-Rahman snapped. “You have put so many motions to the court, it would take more time to consider these motions than to hear the case itself.”

The prosecution has built a powerful case with documents, drawing freely from the Saddam regime’s archives captured by US and Iraqi forces. It produced more documents Tuesday, includings ones allegedly with signatures by one of the defendants, Taha Yassin Ramadan, ordering the confiscation of land from Dujail residents.

The defence does not appear to have had the same access and says it has no way of knowing if the archives hold material that could help their clients. It has repeatedly asked for documents, including transcripts of the 1984 trial that sentenced the 148 Shiites to death.

Tensions have grown after Abdel-Rahman ordered the arrest of four defence witnesses last month, accusing them of perjury. The defence claims he was trying to silence their testimony that some of the 148 Shiites were still alive — a claim the defence said would discredit the prosecution’s case.

On Monday, alleged confessions of the four witnesses were read in court, admitting they committed perjury either because they were intimidated by Saddam loyalists or offered rewards by the defence.

The defence team said the witnesses were beaten to force the confessions.

An American lawyer on the defense team, Curtis Doebbler, said Tuesday that the confessions cast doubt on the court’s fairness. They “were taken under coercive pressure from witnesses who have been beaten and arrested, held incommunicado,” he said. “Reading those into the record indicates bias in any court in the world.” Abdel-Rahman smiled derisively during Doebbler’s comments, muttering, “we know his purpose. He’s come to hear his own voice and claim that he’s an international lawyer.”

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