Saddam trial enters crucial phase with ex-regime figures testifying
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein’s troubled trial moves to a crucial stage Monday with testimony expected from former regime figures and the presentation of documents allegedly pointing to the ousted ruler’s knowledge of the torture and execution of Shiite Muslims.But the proceedings are likely to take place with neither the eight defendants nor the lawyers they retained in the courtroom, which was likely to fuel concerns about the legitimacy of the tribunal and its eventual verdict.Saddam and his seven co-defendants are on trial in the killing of nearly 150 Shiite Muslims after the former ruler survived a 1982 assassination attempt in Dujail north of Baghdad. If convicted, they could face the death penalty by hanging.Twenty-six prosecution witnesses have testified since the trial began Oct. 19, many providing heart-wrenching accounts of torture and imprisonment but none directly linking Saddam to their ordeal.Court officials said witnesses expected in the coming days would include former regime officials, whose testimony would attempt to “connect the dots” to establish a clear chain of command from the security officials who carried out torture and executions to Saddam.The officials would not identify the witnesses, so it was impossible to determine whether their evidence will live up to its billing. The officials did say, however, that the witnesses were not offered immunity in exchange for their testimony.Prosecutors also were expected to submit the first of hundreds of documents that are expected to implicate Saddam in every step of the investigation, torture and death of the Shiites. The documents include some in Saddam’s own handwriting, according to legal experts familiar with the case.Much attention also will be focused on the conduct of the trial under a new judge, who took over last month after his predecessor resigned amid criticism over tumultuous proceedings marked by frequent, profane outbursts by Saddam and his half brother and one-time intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim.Chief Judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman clamped down on the courtroom theatrics. The defense team walked out Jan. 29 after Abdel-Rahman threw one of their colleagues out of the courtroom. Saddam and three co-defendants were allowed to leave or forcibly removed, and the judge appointed replacements for the defense lawyers.In the following session Feb. 1, only three defendants attended. None showed up the next day and Saddam’s lawyers have said they will continue to boycott the trial as long as Abdel-Rahman is on the bench.The defense claims that Abdel-Rahman is unfit to try the case because he was sentenced to life in absentia in the 1970s for anti-state activity. Saddam became president in 1979, but was Iraq’s most powerful man for several years before that.Court officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment on judicial conduct, said Abdel-Rahman must formally address the issue of his fitness because the defense has filed a motion for his removal, citing his opposition to Saddam’s regime.The implications for a long-term absence by the defendants and their lawyers is unclear. There are precedents in international law for trials to continue without the defendants in the courtroom, including cases before the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for atrocities in Rwanda.But it will likely raise questions about the fairness of the proceedings, which human rights groups criticized even before the trial began. Many observers have expressed skepticism that a fair trial could be held in Iraq so soon after the 2003 fall of the former regime in a country gripped by insurgency, some of it led by Saddam’s supporters.”To minimize the risks involved, the court must make sure the lawyers it appoints mount a vigorous defense,” Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch said in a report Friday.The court-appointed lawyers did not accept Abdel-Rahman’s offer to cross-examine prosecution witnesses who testified Jan. 29 session, but used pointed questions when they did so in the hearings in early February.Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Mousawi was so visibly annoyed by their line of questioning that he angrily demanded that they stop speaking on behalf of all eight defendants and stick to their individual clients.The Dujail case is one of about a dozen being prepared by the Iraqi High Tribunal against Saddam and his top lieutenants. They include the “Anfal” campaign in which tens of thousands of Kurds have been killed or driven away from their homes, the suppression of twin 1991 uprisings by Shiites and Kurds and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.Preliminary investigations into the Anfal case are nearly complete. Under Iraqi law, the investigative report will be forwarded to a judge, who would then order a trial within 45 days if he believes a strong case exists.