Saddam trial enters new phase with defence testimony

The trial of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein over the killing of Shi’ites in the 1980s began hearing on Tuesday the testimony of defence witnesses, marking a new stage in the long-running process.

Saddam himself was not in court for the hearing, the day after he defiantly refused to plead to detailed charges against him including murder, torture and the execution of minors.

The session opened on Tuesday with just three former Baathist officials in court who are accused of assisting Saddam’s regime in finding the names of 148 Shi’ites from the village of Dujail who were executed in the mid-1980s.

Chief judge Rauf Rasheed Abdel Rahman said witnesses for the three defendants would testify on Tuesday but Saddam’s lawyers entered a complaint asking why their client had not been allowed to hear testimony.

“The court will listen to the witnesses of the three defendants present, there are a number of witnesses and it may take up this session or even another one… this is the court’s plan,” Rahman replied.

One of the witnesses, who sat behind a curtain to protect his identity, said of defendant Ali Dayih: “He was never the kind of person to write reports about anyone. It is impossible for this person, a teacher, to have an evil spirit, to hurt another person.”

As witnesses sang praises of the defendants, Judge Rahman asked at one point: “Are you writing a poem?”

The trial of Saddam and seven other defendants resumed on Monday after a three-week break, marking the start of the final phase of the case against the ex-Iraqi leader.

Saddam and his co-defendants could face the death penalty if found guilty of the killings of 148 Shi’ite villagers after a failed assassination attempt against the ousted dictator in Dujail in 1982.

Rahman read detailed charges against all eight defendants on Monday and entered a “not guilty” plea on Saddam’s behalf when the former dictator refused to plead.

“I cannot reply yes or no to the charge,” said Saddam, arguing that the list of accusations was too long and was merely for public consumption.

Saddam’s team has refused to answer specific charges throughout the trial, preferring instead the tactic of attacking the court’s legitimacy and the legality of the proceedings.

The defendant’s Jordanian lawyer Ziad Najdawi argued that criminal intent for a crime against humanity had not been proven since all the players were operating within the law as they understood it.

“There is no criminal intent,” he said.

Saddam’s half brother Barzan al-Tikriti, the former head of the feared secret police, described as “lies” accusations that he played a role in the arrest and interrogation of some 400 villagers while former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan was blamed for the destruction of the village’s orchards.

In contrast to some of the more turbulent past sessions of the trial, the pace of Monday’s hearing was swift and the chief judge was rarely interrupted as he read out the charges.

The trial began on October 19 last year and a United States official close to the proceedings said on Monday he expected a verdict by the end of July or early August.

The last few sessions have seen the presentation of documentary evidence linking the defendants to the killings, including audio recordings and signatures on execution orders.

The trial has been marred by the murder of two defence lawyers and the resignation of the first chief judge in january, who critics say failed to clamp down on Saddam and his outbursts in court.

International human rights advocates say the trial continues to be conducted well below international legal standards.

After the Dujail trial, Saddam and six others are scheduled to face charges of genocide over the 1988 Anfal campaign that left an estimated 100 000 Kurds dead. - AFP


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