Saddam trial resumes with defence testimony

The trial of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants was expected to resume on Monday with further defence testimony seeking to refute the charges of crimes against humanity.

During the last two weeks of the trial, the accused have had a chance to bring witnesses to speak out on their behalf over the charges relating to the killing of Shi’ite villagers after an attempt on Saddam’s life in 1982.

The last hearing on Thursday saw the reemergence of one of the most famous figures of the old regime, when former deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz took the stand in Saddam’s defence.

“The president is not guilty, nor are any of the officials in the government, just because they punished those who tried to assassinate the head of state,” the 70-year-old told the court, looking thin and frail in a frayed pyjama top.

The trial revolves around the harsh crackdown on the Shiite town of Dujail following an assassination attempt against Saddam during a visit there. Saddam and his co-defendants have been charged over the deaths of 148 people and face execution by hanging if found guilty.

“The Dujail case is part of a chain of assassination operations against officials,” said Aziz, laying the responsibility for the attempt at the feet of current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party.

In the case of Saddam, the defence strategy appears to be an attempt to recast the arrest of hundreds of Shi’ites from Dujail and the execution of the 148 as a natural response to an assassination attempt.

In the case of his half brother and former head of intelligence Barzan al-Tikriti, as well as former Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan, the defence’s approach is more focused on absolving the men of any responsibility in those events between 1982 and 1984.

“Barzan was my friend. If he had tortured anybody he would have told me,” Aziz said, adding that Ramadan was only concerned with civil matters.

Other witnesses related how the assassination attempt was a plot inspired by Iran, with whom Iraq was at war with at the time.

Four of the defendants are actually from the town of Dujail and were little more than minor officials in the ruling Baath Party.
Their witnesses, which appeared in mid-May, were largely focused on showing that these men did not participate in the roundup and arrest of many of the town’s inhabitants.

As in past sessions, there have been sharp exchanges between presiding Judge Rauf Abdel Rahman and defendants as well as nationalistic diatribes by Saddam and Barzan, though for the most part, testimony has moved forward at a steady pace.

On May 22, the judge did expel one of Saddm’s female defence lawyers for being disruptive.

The trial, which opened on October 19, has been marred the murder of two defence lawyers and the January resignation of the first chief judge.

Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Mussawi said the defence testimony could take a few weeks, as nearly 60 witnesses are lined up to testify in the courtroom in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. There have been more than 30 witnesses so far.

Once defence testimony is complete, defence lawyers will give their closing statements, followed by defendants’ final statements which will mark the end of the trial.

The proceedings could conclude by the end of June, a US official close to the court said last week, with a verdict coming as early as July.

International human rights advocates say the trial is being conducted well below international legal standards. - AFP

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