BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A defiant Saddam Hussein quarreled with judges and scuffled with guards at the opening of his long-awaited trial, rejecting the tribunal”s right to judge him and insisting he is still the president of Iraq.
Sitting inside a white pen with metal bars, Saddam appeared gaunt and frail and his salt-and-pepper beard was unkempt as he pleaded innocent Wednesday to charges of murder, torture, forced expulsions and illegal detentions.
He wore a suit with a white shirt and no tie. Gone were the Homburg hat, the cigar, the shotgun fired from a reviewing stand. So were a few pounds (kilos) after nearly two years in an American military prison. Still, the swagger and the smirk remained, the bearing of a man accustomed to 23 years of unchallenged power.
If convicted, the 68-year-old Saddam and seven of his regime”s henchmen who appeared with him in the hearing could face the death penalty for their role in the 1982 killing of nearly 150 people from the mainly Shiite town of Dujail north of Baghdad after a failed attempt on Saddam”s life.
Iraqis and much of the Arab world watched glitchy television coverage of the proceedings intently, watching Saddam strike a pose reminiscent of the once-ubiquitous television pictures of him sitting at the head of a table surrounded by "yes" men.
"Since the fall of the regime, we have been waiting for this trial," said Aqeel al-Ubaidi, a resident of Dujail.
"The trial won”t bring back those who died, but at least it will help put out the fire and anger inside us."
Wednesday”s session, held under tight security, was testy from the start, when the judge asked Saddam to take the stand first.
As the courtroom fell silent, Saddam got up from his chair and took the podium, holding a copy of the Quran. He refused to state his name for the record and turned the question back on the presiding judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd whose identity was revealed to the public only on the day of the trial. "Who are you? I want to know who you are," Saddam demanded.
"I do not respond to this so-called court, with all due respect to its people, and I retain my constitutional right as the president of Iraq," he said, brushing off Amin”s attempts to interrupt him. "Neither do I recognize the body that has designated and authorized you, nor the aggression because all that has been built on false basis is false."
After repeatedly refusing to give his name, Saddam finally sat. Amin read his name for him, calling him the "former president of Iraq."
"I said I”m the president of Iraq," Saddam snapped back. "I did not say deposed."
Later, Saddam stood, smiling, and exchanged greetings with other defendants during a break in the proceedings. He then asked to step out of the room, but when two guards tried to grab his arms to escort him out, he angrily shook them off.
The guards, wearing blue bulletproof vests, tried to grab him again, and Saddam struggled to free himself. Saddam and the guards shoved each other and yelled for about a minute.
In the end, he was allowed to walk independently out of the room, with the two guards behind him.
The three-hour session ended with Amin announcing an adjournment until Nov. 28. The trial was broadcast on satellite stations with a 20-minute delay. But technical quality was poor, with the sound cutting out frequently and the picture going blank several times. Reporters at the courtroom struggled to follow the proceedings from behind a bulletproof glass partition.
The Iraqi government did not explain the 20-minute delay, but one effect could have been to cut out scenes like the scuffle, which did not appear on tape.
"My father is brave, a lion, I am proud of him," said one of Saddam”s daughters, Raghad Saddam Hussein. "He is a man who dedicated his life to serve his country, he was brave in his youth, so how can he be afraid now?" she told the Dubai-based Arabiyah satellite channel from Jordan.
Reaction to Saddam”s trial varied in Iraq, where his loyalists, together with hardcore members of his Baath party and feared security services are an important faction of a Sunni-led insurgency wracking Iraq for the past 2 1/2 years.
In Baghdad, Shiite construction worker Salman Zaboun Shanan sat with his family at home in the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah, having taken the day off from work to watch the trial. When Saddam appeared on television, his wife spat in disgust."I hope he is executed, and that anyone who suffered can take a piece of his flesh," said Shanan, who was jailed during Saddam”s rule, as was his wife, Sabiha Hassan, and several of their sons.
But across the Tigris River in the mainly Sunni Arab district of Azamiyah, some were embittered by the trial of Saddam, whose regime was dominated by Sunni Arabs who have now lost their power. "Saddam is the lesser of evils," said engineer Sahab Awad Maaruf, comparing Saddam to the current Shiite-Kurdish led government. "He”s the only legitimate leader for Iraqis." Others had mixed feelings.
Um Abdullah, a 40-year-old woman in Azamiyah, couldn”t keep watching the trial and went out grocery shopping because "I had chills" being reminded of Saddam”s era. Still, "it hurt me a lot seeing the strongest leader inside a cage. I was thrilled when he showed those agents that he is still Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president," she said.
The prosecution of Saddam could be a lengthy process.
The Dujail case is the first of up to a dozen that prosecutors plan to bring to trial against Saddam and his Baath Party inner circle for atrocities during their 23-year rule.
The trial took place in the five-story marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of Saddam”s feared Baath Party. The building in Baghdad”s Green Zone, the heavily fortified district where Iraq”s government, parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located, was ringed with 10-foot (3-meter) blast walls and U.S. and Iraqi troops, with several Humvees and at least one tank deployed outside. U.S. soldiers led bomb-detecting dogs around the grounds.
The courtroom resembled a banquet hall with six crystal chandeliers dangling from its ceiling. A short verse of the Quran in huge golden letters adorned the wall behind the judges” bench. "If you judge amongst people, judge justly."
The eight defendants sat in three rows in a pen of white iron bars that stood at about neck high as the men sat on their black chair. Saddam was in the front row, directly in front of the five judges.
Saddam often slumped low, leaning on his elbow, or glanced behind him at the visitors gallery on a balcony, where many officials from Iraq”s new Shiite and Kurdish-dominated government sat. The ousted leader smiled often and made comments to his co-defendants. Near the end of the session, he asked for a yellow pad and jotted down some notes.
The silver-haired presiding judge, Amin, in turn, kept up a steady, calm demeanor throughout the session”s often combative atmosphere. He agreed to return traditional headdresses for several of the defendants, who complained about their embarrassing bareheaded state after the garments were apparently seized by security. Many tribal Sunni Arabs consider it shameful to appear in public without the checkered scarf, tied by a cord around the forehead.
The identities of the other judges remain hidden to protect them from retaliation, and they did not appear on camera. The panel will both hear the case and render a verdict.
Amin read them their rights and the charges against them and told them they could face execution if convicted. He then asked each for his plea, starting with the top defendant.
"Mr. Saddam, go ahead. Are you guilty or innocent?" "I said what I said. I am not guilty," Saddam replied quietly.
Amin read out the plea, "Innocent."
The chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, outlined the case against the men, saying Saddam was closely involved in planning retaliation after an assassination attempt against him as he drove through Dujail in July 1982. Al-Mousawi said the prosecution had videos of Saddam personally interrogating four Dujail residents soon after his motorcade was fired on.
Saddam countered that videotapes should not be admissible as evidence, insisting they can be altered and faked. The judge did not respond to his argument.
Prosecutors have said that they brought the Dujail case against Saddam first, rather than more notorious atrocities that killed far more people, because they had more solid, easy-to-gather evidence on Dujail, including documents and videos showing the then-leader”s role.
Saddam”s co-defendants include his former intelligence chief Barazan Ibrahim, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, the former Revolutionary Court head Awad Hamed al-Bandar and four lower-level Baathist civil servants from the Dujail region.
Wednesday”s back-and-forths evoked the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, accused of committing atrocities during his rule in the Balkans in the 1990s. Like Saddam, Milosevic has argued with judges and denied the court”s legitimacy. While Milosevic is being tried at a U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, Saddam is facing a tribunal of his own people. The Iraqi tribunal is partly funded by the United States and organized by a government dominated by Iraqi ethnic groups he once oppressed.
The trial comes nearly two years after Saddam”s capture on Dec. 13, 2003, when U.S. troops that had overrun Baghdad the previous April finally found the fugitive leader, hiding in a cellar in a rural area outside his hometown of Tikrit north of Baghdad.