BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The chief judge in Saddam Hussein’s genocide trial said Thursday that he did not believe the former Iraqi leader was a dictator, sparking demands from Kurds that he be removed from the case.
Judge Abdullah al-Amiri made his remark in a friendly chat with Saddam during court proceedings, a day after the prosecution said the judge should step down because he is biased toward the defense.
Two hours after the comment about Saddam, al-Amiri abruptly postponed the session until Monday for what he called “technical reasons,” without having heard from a third scheduled witness. No further explanation was given.
Saddam and his co-defendants are being tried on charges of committing atrocities against Kurds during a military campaign codenamed Anfal nearly two decades ago in which prosecutors say 180,000 Kurds died.
The exchange between the judge and Saddam came when a 57-year-old Kurdish farmer testified that the ex-president aggressively told him to “shut up” when he pleaded for the release of nine missing relatives during the Anfal crackdown.
“Why did he try to see Saddam Hussein if Saddam Hussein was a dictator and was against the Kurdish people,” Saddam said, referring to himself.
The judge interrupted: “You were not a dictator. However, the people or the individuals and officials surrounding you created a dictator (out of you), it was not you in particular. It happens all over the world.” “Thank you,” Saddam responded, bowing his head in respect.
A Shiite Muslim with 25 years legal experience, al-Amiri was a member of Saddam’s Baath party and served as a prosecuting judge in a criminal court under the former leader’s regime. He heads the five-judge panel that will decide the fate of Saddam, a Sunni Muslim.
Court spokesman Raed Juhi acknowledged in a press conference later that al-Amiri may have misspoken, but said it should not affect the outcome of the trial.
“We as Kurdish politicians ask for a change in judges. He must be replaced,” Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament told The Associated Press.
“If Saddam isn’t a dictator as he says, then there’s never been a dictatorship in the world. This provokes the Kurdish street and is against the truth. It angers the victims and hurts their feelings,” he said.
Jaafar al-Moussawi, the top prosecutor of the Iraqi tribunal, played down the significance of al-Amiri’s comments. “Every judge has his own strategy in running the court. In my view … he was too lenient with the defendants and their lawyers and the administration of the court. He imagines that by this leniency he will keep the court in control.” But he said he was confident in the final verdict in the trial, noting that the ruling is reached by a majority vote among the five-judge panel.
On Wednesday, chief prosecutor Munqith al-Faroon demanded al-Amiri step down, accusing him of bias toward the deposed leader and his co-defendants. “You allowed this court to become a political podium for the defendants,” al-Faroon told al-Amiri.
The prosecutor said the judge was giving Saddam time to make “political” statements that were irrelevant to the proceedings.
“For instance yesterday, instead of taking legal action (against Saddam), you asked his permission to talk,” al-Faroon said. “The action of the court leans toward the defendants.”
On Tuesday, Saddam bellowed against “agents of Iran and Zionism” and vowed to “crush your heads” after listening to Kurdish witnesses allege atrocities committed against them during the 1987-1988 Anfal campaign.
Al-Amiri’s style was in sharp contrast with that of the chief judge in Saddam’s first trial, which concerned a crackdown on Shiites in the town of Dujail in the 1980s. In that trial, chief judge Raouf Abdul-Rahman was criticised by the defense for being too harsh on them, since he aggressively put down outbursts by Saddam and his co-defendants and even made sneering comments about oppression during Saddam’s rule.
A verdict in the 9-month-long Dujail trial is expected Oct. 16, and Saddam could face execution by hanging if convicted.
In the Anfal trial, Saddam and six co-defendants are charged with genocide or other crimes, and also could face the death sentence.
On Thursday, the court heard a shaken Kurdish man, Abdullah Mohammed Hussein, recount his meeting with Saddam years ago, following the Anfal offensive. He said he was allowed to see the then-president in response to a plea he presented to his village authorities.
“I told Saddam, ‘Sir, my family members were arrested,'” Hussein recalled. “Saddam asked me where, and I told him, ‘in my village.’ Saddam said, ‘Shut up. Your family is gone in the Anfal,”‘ Hussein said. He said that when Saddam told him to go away, “I saluted him, saying, ‘Yes, sir.’ And I left. I consoled myself, thinking that Saddam may feel sorry for me and set my family free. I was very sad. But I really hoped he would release them.”
The witness, who spoke in Kurdish through an Arabic translator, looked anxious as he sat in a Baghdad courtroom giving the opening testimony in the fourth court session this week in the former Iraqi leader’s trial. Hussein, a Kurd, had no family relation to Saddam, a Sunni Muslim Arab. Saddam insisted he had “never seen this man before. I don’t know him.”
The witness said that two years ago, officials told him they found the remains of three of his relatives in a mass grave. He said the whereabouts of the rest of them was unknown. He demanded “financial and moral” compensation for his loss. He told the court that he wished to “lodge a complaint” against Saddam and his cousin and co-defendant, “Chemical” Ali al-Majid.
One of Saddam’s lawyers asked the court to strike the testimony from the record, arguing that it was “inaccurate.” He accused Hussein of “changing his account,” by telling investigators earlier he was part of a Kurdish militia, but then testifying before the court he was not.
Another witness, Ali Mahmoud, 51, identified himself as being a Kurdish guerrilla, or peshmerga. Mahmoud said his sister and her daughter disappeared in Anfal and their bodies were only found three years ago. He also said he sustained a hip wound while fighting Iraqi forces and was hospitalized in Iraq and later in neighboring Iran.
Asked if he sought compensation, he told the chief judge: “not for myself, but for the martyrs of Kurdistan. I’m a Kurdish fighter and we were defending our cause.” Previous witnesses also said the remains of their relatives, who went missing during the Anfal campaign, were found in mass graves several years later. Some recalled how they survived chemical attacks allegedly carried out by Saddam’s regime against the Kurdish population. Saddam has accused the Kurdish witnesses of trying to sow ethnic division in Iraq by alleging chemical attacks and mass arrests in their villages during the late 1980s offensive.