Saddam, co-defendants say they are on hunger strike, but trial presses ahead
BAGHDAD, Iraq – After shouts, insults, arguments and walkouts, Saddam Hussein and three of his co-defendants unveiled a new show-stealing tactic Tuesday: They announced in court that they had gone on hunger strike.Saddam said the strike was called to protest the tough way chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman has conducted the court since he took over last month.”For three days we have been holding a hunger strike protesting against your way of treating us – against you and your masters,” the former Iraqi leader said. Their claims could not be independently confirmed.Abdel-Rahman has tried to impose order in a court where outbursts and abuse, mostly by Saddam and his former intelligence chief and half brother Barzan Ibrahim, have often overshadowed the proceedings. The disruptions led to criticism of Abdel-Rahman’s predecessor, fellow Kurd Rizgar Mohammed Amin, for not doing enough to rein in the brothers.But after a short period of shouting and verbal abuse at the start of Tuesday’s session, the court was calm as prosecutors tried for a second consecutive day to build their case of the ousted president’s direct role in executions and imprisonment of hundreds Shiites in the 1980s.A key document presented to the court allegedly showed that Saddam approved rewards for intelligence agents involved in the crackdown against residents of Dujail, a mainly Shiite town north of Baghdad, following a 1982 assassination attempt against him there.If convicted in the killing of nearly 150 Shiites from Dujail, Saddam and his seven co-defendants could face death by hanging.Ibrahim spoke at length, denying he had any part in the crackdown and insisting he personally released detainees.He spoke from the defendants’ pen, again wearing only his pajamas in protest at being forced to attend the trial. But his orderly arguments represented the first time any of the defendants have dealt at length with the charges they face, and his participation could boost the legitimacy of a tribunal whose fairness some have questioned.Judge Raid Juhi, a court spokesman who investigated the Dujail case, told reporters of Ibrahim’s attire: “You must have noticed that all the defendants wore appropriate attire. Defendant Barzan (Ibrahim) wore what he thought was appropriate.”After nearly three hours of testimony, Abdel-Rahman adjourned the trial until Feb. 28.The day’s session began with Saddam entering and shouting his support for Iraqi insurgents. “Long live the mujahedeen!” he yelled. Later, during the testimony, he shouted, “I say to all Iraqis, fight and liberate your country!”Saddam said he had not eaten in three days, while Ibrahim said he had been on strike for two days. Two other defendants, Awad Bandar and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, also said they were on a hunger strike.Their claims could not be confirmed. Although the defendants are in Iraq’s legal custody, they are being held in a U.S. military detention facility. There was no comment immediately available from the Americans.Juhi did not deny the defendants were refusing food when asked about the strike after the day’s three-hour session.”This is an administrative problem that the court is working to verify and it will work also to solve it … with the responsible parties in the custodial authorities,” he told reporters.”But, as you could see, the defendants are in good health,” he said.Ibrahim complained that he and other defendants had been forced to attend the proceedings against their will. “You brought me by force in my pajamas and I have been on a hunger strike for two days,” he said. “Are you familiar with the law, or did they just bring you here?” Ibrahim asked Abdel-Rahman provocatively. The judge ignored the questions and smiled.The defendants refused to attend sessions held Feb. 1 and 2 after their defense team walked out of court Jan. 29. The defense lawyers have refused to participate in the trial until Abdel-Rahman is removed, accusing him of bias against Saddam.Abdel-Rahman appointed new defense lawyers, but Saddam and other defendants have so far refused to accept them. But on Monday, Abdel-Rahman ordered the defendants to attend the session. Saddam walked in on his own, but Ibrahim had to be pulled into the court by guards who held him by the arms.On Tuesday, the prosecution put on the stand three former members of Saddam’s regime – a former secretary of Saddam’s, a former provincial governor and an anonymous intelligence official.It also displayed to the court a document dated July 21, 1982 – 13 days after the assassination attempt – in which the Mukhabarat, the intelligence agency headed by Ibrahim at the time, recommended rewards for six employees for their role in the arrests.The document bore a signature that the prosecution said was Ibrahim’s. Below it was written the word “agreed” with what was allegedly Saddam’s signature.On the witness stand, Hamed Youssef Hamadi – Saddam’s secretary at the time – was asked whose handwriting was on the memo. “It looks like President Saddam’s,” he said.Ibrahim disputed the authenticity of the document. He cross-examined all three witnesses and at the same time gave his own account of his role in the Dujail crackdown. Abdel-Rahman allowed him to speak, largely uninterrupted.Ibrahim said he went to Dujail on the day that gunmen opened fire on Saddam’s motorcade, then returned to the village the following day. He claimed he ordered the release of more than 80 detainees held at the ruling Baath Party’s headquarters in the town.”I released all the detainees inside the hall – more than 80 persons. I swear to God I said goodbye to them one by one and apologized,” he said.After those two visits, Ibrahim continued, “I never heard of Dujail ever again. I never got a report on it. It was all handed over to the General Security Services,” a separate agency.In previous sessions, some prosecution witnesses – Dujail residents arrested in the crackdown – have testified that Ibrahim was personally involved in torturing them.For the first time since the trial began in October, Ramadan, Saddam’s former vice president, was implicated by a witness for other than the reprisal destruction of farmland and orchards owned by Dujail residents.The day’s last witness, Hamadi, testified that he had been told by a senior intelligence official that he was relieved of investigating the case after questioning seven suspects, making room for Ramadan, who took over.Ramadan, backed by Saddam, disputed the allegation.