Saddam refuses to cave at trial

By Michael Georgy, Luke Baker

BAGHDAD - The trial of Saddam Hussein on war crimes charges was adjourned for more than a month shortly after it began about noon (10pm NZT) in Baghdad.

"It has been adjourned until November 28," one of the prosecutors said.

An adjournment had been widely expected. Saddam's lawyer had said he would ask for the trial to be adjourned, arguing he had insufficient time to prepare.

Saddam has been charged with crimes against humanity in connection with the deaths of more than 140 Shi'ite Muslim men after a group of young Shi'ites tried to assassinate him near Dujail, a town about 60 km north of Baghdad, in 1982.

At the start of the trial on Wednesday, Saddam and his seven co-defendants all pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Grey-bearded and wearing a dark jacket over an open-necked white shirt, Saddam hectored the chief judge from his seat inside a white metal pen on the marble courtroom floor.

Asked his name by the judge, Saddam, 68, shot back: "You know me. You are an Iraqi and you know who I am.

"I won't answer to this so-called court...Who are you? What are you? The occupation is illegitimate," Saddam said.

"I retain my constitutional rights as the president of Iraq."

The judge said: "You are Saddam Hussein al-Majid ... former president of Iraq", at which point Saddam raised his finger to interrupt, saying testily: "I did not say former president".

Shortly afterwards, the judge informed the defendants that the charges included murder, torture and forced expulsion, saying that the crimes could carry the death penalty, and informed them of their rights, including that of a fair trial.

Asked to plead, each in turn, Saddam first, said: "Not guilty".

Saddam was the last to enter the courtroom as proceedings began shortly after midday and asked the jailers escorting him to slow down as he walked to his spot facing the panel of five judges. He carried an old copy of the Koran.

Chief judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd, presided from a raised dais looking down on the defendants. Bronze-coloured scales of justice hung behind the judges. Of the judges, only Amin's face was shown on TV, and he conducted all questioning.

"This is the first session of case number one, the case of Dujail," Amin told the court at the start, referring to the town where bloody reprisals against more than 140 Shi'ite Muslim men followed an attempt on Saddam's life on July 8, 1982.

Nearly two years after he was found hiding in a hole in the ground near where he was born, Saddam and seven other members of his now-defunct Baath Party are now on trial for those events.

Assassination attempt

Prosecutors will try to show that Saddam, in retaliation for the botched assassination attempt, ordered his henchmen to hunt down, torture and kill scores of men from Dujail, on that July day and in the days, weeks and years that followed.

Iraq's government, led by long-time enemies of Saddam and looking for popularity ahead of elections in December, hopes the trial will boost the morale of Iraqis struggling against the hardships of the insurgency 2-1/2 years after the war began.

Human rights groups have expressed unease about perceptions of "victor's justice", warning that the trial must not only be fair, but be seen to be fair, and raising concerns about the legitimacy of a body set up during US occupation.

In London, legal expert and barrister Jonathan Goldberg, speaking to CNN, cast doubt on the proceedings. "It's probably not a fair trial by American or European standards," he said. "The whole thing is a bit of a public relations circus."

The eyes of the world were on the trial, being televised with around a 30-minute delay, not just to capture the moment that Saddam stood in the dock, but to see whether Iraq under its new leadership can fairly try its deposed dictator.

If found guilty, Saddam could face death by hanging and according to new statutes governing the tribunal, any sentence would have to be carried out within 30 days of all appeals being exhausted. That means Saddam could be executed before being tried for other crimes such as genocide.

While the former president's day in court has been long awaited by millions of Iraqis and others, it may not last long.

Sources close to the tribunal say the case may be quickly adjourned so the judges, partly trained in Britain over the past year, can study defense motions for a dismissal or delay.

In a statement posted on the Internet on Tuesday, people calling themselves members of the Baath Party urged Saddam's followers to rise up and defy the court with gunfire.

In Baghdad and areas to the west, mortar rounds landed near U.S. military bases, and in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, dozens of young men rallied and chanted in support of the ex-president.

"The trial is unfair," said student Dawud Farham, aged 18. "They should put on trial those who are tearing apart Iraq and its people."

"Brutal crackdown"

Khalil al-Dulaimi, Saddam's chief lawyer, said on Tuesday that his client was calm and confident of his innocence.

An Iraqi with little experience of arguing major cases, such as those involving alleged crimes against humanity, Dulaimi has said he intends to challenge the legitimacy of the court.

The defense team has said he will present a dossier of 122 points designed to show that the court, set up by Americans, does not have jurisdiction over Saddam and is illegal.

He will also ask for more time to study the more than 800 pages of evidence collected by investigators over the past two years and which the defense team received just 45 days ago.

He may also argue that Saddam had presidential immunity.

The charges stem from events that took place on July 8, 1982, when a group of young men linked to the Shi'ite Dawa Party attempted to assassinate Saddam as his armored motorcade passed through Dujail, a town about 60 km (35 miles) north of Baghdad.

In retaliation for the botched attempt on his life, prosecutors will try to show that Saddam ordered his henchmen to hunt down, torture and kill scores of men from the town, not just immediately after that day, but in the years that followed.

Women and children are also alleged to have been forcibly removed from Dujail, taken to Abu Ghraib prison and later sent to an internment camp in the desert near the border with Saudi Arabia where many ultimately "disappeared".

Helicopters and tanks then demolished parts of the town, while Saddam's soldiers laid waste to rich farmland and fruit groves, destroying the people's homes and their livelihoods.

- REUTERS

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