A defiant Saddam Hussein mocked his accusers in a landmark court appearance in Iraq on Thursday, describing the process as “theatre” and calling United States President George Bush the real criminal.
An unrepentant Saddam refused to sign legal papers after seven charges were read against him during his first court appearance after being captured in Iraq, while also defending his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, a tribunal official said.
Dressed in black, the jailed dictator declared that “Kuwait is an Iraqi territory. It was not an invasion,” according to the official who attended the 30-minute hearing.
Saddam Hussein’s former presidential secretary, Abed Hamid Mahmud, was taken before the tribunal minutes after his former boss was formally charged by the judge.
The hearing gave the former dictator his first chance since his capture seven months ago to speak in public.
Saddam was led from an armoured bus escorted by two Iraqi prison guards and ushered through a door guarded by six more Iraqi policemen, according to CNN, which had a pool reporter monitoring the hearing. The bus was escorted by four humvees and an ambulance.
Salem Chalabi, the director of the Iraqi special tribunal, said beforehand that Saddam would face a single judge in Thursday’s session.
He said Saddam and his lieutenants are in good health.
“He looks fine, he’s seen by a doctor on a daily basis and looks fine, he’s thinner and his hair is a bit wavy but otherwise, he’s OK,” Chalabi told AP Radio.
A formal indictment with specific charges is expected later, Chalabi said. The trial isn’t expected until 2005.
“The next legal step would be that the investigations start [properly] with investigative judges and investigators beginning the process of gathering evidence,” he said. “Down the line, there will be an indictment, if there is enough evidence — obviously, and a time table starts with respect to a trial date.”
Saddam and the other 11 suspects were transferred to Iraqi custody on Wednesday. He and the others are no longer prisoners of war but are still locked up with US forces as their jailers.
“They were surprised that they were told they’re in Iraqi custody,” Chalabi told Associated Press Radio.
President Ghazi al-Yawer told an Arab newspaper that Iraq’s new government has decided to reinstate the death penalty, suspended during the US occupation.
US and Iraqi officials hope the trial will lay bare the atrocities of his regime and help push the country toward normalcy after years of tyranny, the US-led invasion and the insurgency that has blossomed in its aftermath.
But the trial could have the opposite effect, possibly widening the chasm among Iraq’s disparate groups — Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis.
“It’s going to be the trial of the century,” National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told Associated Press Television News (APTN).
“Everybody is going to watch this trial, and we are going to demonstrate to the outside world that we in the new Iraq are going to be an example of what the new Iraq is all about.”
Wednesday’s transfer of legal custody took place in secret.
Chalabi said the defendants were brought one by one into a room at an undisclosed location and informed of the change in their status to criminal suspects. They were told that they will appear in court within 24 hours to hear charges, he said.
According to Chalabi, the 67-year-old Saddam said “good morning” as he entered the room, listened to the official explanation, and was told he could respond to the complaints on Thursday. He was then hustled away.
“Some of them looked very worried,” Chalabi said of the other defendants. They include former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, the regime’s best-known spokesperson in the West; Ali Hasan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali”; and former vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan.
The initial proceedings are taking place under a blanket of secrecy because of fears that insurgents, many of them Saddam supporters, might exact revenge on those taking part.
US and Iraqi officials refused to say where Thursday’s hearing would take place or release the name of the presiding judge. No pictures will be allowed of any of the Iraqi participants — except for the defendants — to protect them from attack. Only a few journalists will be allowed to attend.
Issam Ghazawi, a member of Saddam’s defence team, said he received threats in a telephone call on Wednesday from someone who claimed to be a minister of justice who promised that anyone who tried to defend Saddam would be “chopped to pieces”.
US officials had hoped to delay proceedings against Saddam until the Iraqis set up a special court and trained a legal team.
But Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose government regained sovereignty on Monday, insisted publicly on taking legal custody of Saddam quickly. The Americans agreed on condition they keep him under US lock and key.
Trying Saddam and top regime figures presents a major challenge to the Iraqis and their American backers.
Allawi’s government is due to leave office after elections in January, and a second national ballot is to be held by December 2005. That raises the possibility that national policy on the prosecution of Saddam and his backers could change depending on the make-up of the government.
Most of Iraq’s 25-million people were overjoyed when Saddam’s regime collapsed, and many are looking forward to the day he will be punished.
“Everyone all over the world agrees that Saddam Hussein should be put on trial in front of the Iraqi people,” said Baghdad resident Ahmad al-Lami.
However, the turmoil of the past 14 months has led to a longing for the stability and order of the ousted dictatorship, at least among Sunni Arab Muslims who now feel threatened by the possibility of a Shi’ite-dominated government.
Nostalgia for Saddam — a Sunni — is strongest in Sunni-dominated parts of the country most heavily involved in the insurgency.
“Saddam Hussein was a national hero and better than the traitors in the new government,” a resident of Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit told APTN, refusing to give his name.
In Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, resident Ammar Mohammed suggested the Americans should be put on trial first, because they “killed thousands if Iraqis in one year of occupation”. — Sapa-AP, Sapa-AFP