Saddam turns ‘trial of the century’ into farce

SOMEWHERE between the moment that the bailiff yelled the name “Saddam Hussein” and the six minutes that it took him to appear in the courtroom, it became clear who was in charge.

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By  Catherine Philp Published  December 4, 2005

SOMEWHERE between the moment that the bailiff yelled the name “Saddam Hussein” and the six minutes that it took him to appear in the courtroom, it became clear who was in charge. Far from showcasing justice and democracy in the new Iraq, the trial of Saddam and his seven henchmen descended rapidly into farce last Monday as lawyers failed to show, translators held up proceedings in the search for a magnifying glass, and the defendants, led by the deposed dictator, mounted successive rebellions until — after two hours — the weary judge adjourned proceedings for another week. Iraqis watching the hearing on television were stunned. “I can’t believe that this is what they are calling the trial of the century,” Abu Saleh, a customer at a coffee shop said. “It’s weak, it’s unprofessional, it’s as though nothing was planned.” Saddam’s first outburst came when the judge asked him to sign papers authorising the addition of foreign lawyers to his team, including Ramsey Clark, the former US attorney-general. “I don’t have a pen,” Saddam snapped. “They took it away.” The judge ordered that he be given a pen and paper. “Blank paper is no good. They took away my notes that I need to defend myself,” Saddam retorted. He then began a tirade against the American guards who brought him into the courtroom, complaining that because the lift was broken he had been forced to walk up four flights of stairs with his wrists chained and carrying a Koran. When the judge said that he would tell the guards of his complaint, Saddam exploded: “I don’t want you to tell them. I want you to order them. You are an Iraqi, you are sovereign and they are foreigners, invaders and occupiers.” Saddam did not object to Clark’s presence on his defence team, but the American’s foreign status meant that translators had to verify his licence to practise law. “I can’t read the print, it’s too small,” mumbled the translator, sparking a protracted search for a magnifying glass. As Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin struggled to advance the proceedings, the defendants began interrupting with bizarre complaints; a former Baathist judge accused someone in the courtroom of death threats; a Baathist party official accused prison doctors of injecting him with poison; Barzan Al Tikriti, Saddam’s half-brother, accused the judge of ignoring his request for treatment for his cancer. Saddam and his seven codefendants are charged with the deaths of 148 men from the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad, in retaliation for an assassination attempt in 1982. The prosecution just about managed to open its case with a 15-second video, taken from the UK channel BBC Two’s Newsnight programme, showing Saddam ordering officials to “separate and interrogate” two supsected plotters. Halfway through the third showing, the judge declared: “I think that’s enough.” Next came the video testimony of Wadah Ismail Al Sheikh, a former Mukhabarat (secret police) official billed as the key prosecution witness. His testimony was taped before his recent death from cancer, and defence lawyers had no chance to question him. Fewer than 12 people were involved in the assassination attempt, he said, but more than 400 people, including women and children, were jailed. He identified Barzan, the Mukhabarat chief, as the man who ordered the arrests, and Taha Yasin Ramadan, another defendant, as the man who oversaw the razing of Dujail’s farms. But his testimony never linked Saddam directly to the purge. At that point, there was another precedural hold-up. Two defendants had accepted public defenders when their lawyers failed to show, apparently over security fears, but Barzan now rejected the court’s choice. When he finally accepted a counsel, the embattled judge ordered a week’s adjournment to allow for the processing of paperwork for the replacement lawyers. The court will next sit on December 5, 10 days before the Iraqi general election. With Clark still unable to speak in the absence of a magnifying glass to verify his licence, Saddam’s other foreign counsel, a former Qatari justice minister, asked for a full month’s adjournment. “We need to know what’s going on,” he said, complaining that US security guards would not even allow them to leave their houses to visit witnesses. Judge Amin denied his request and declared the hearing over. Saddam wore a slight smirk on his face, as if savouring a victory. “Apologise to Mr. Clark for me,” he told his lawyer in an aside. “These are the countries of the Third World. What can we do? It’s painful for the image of Iraq.”

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