BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The judges in the trial of Saddam Hussein heard prosecution witnesses Thursday, but the former Iraqi leader and his seven co-defendants were absent, either boycotting or barred from the court.
Saddam, most of the defendants and their entire defense team have boycotted the trial since Sunday. On Thursday, chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman barred the remaining three defendants, the only ones who had attended this week’s sessions.
Abdel-Rahman announced at the start of the session, which started more than 90 minutes late, that the three defendants had caused “chaos” outside the courtroom. He did not elaborate.
The eight defendants’ chairs stood empty in a pen in front of the bench, as the judge ordered the proceedings to continue. The court heard two witnesses, both testifying from behind a curtain to hide their identities, before Abdel-Rahman adjourned the trial until Feb. 13.
One witness told the court that Barzan Ibrahim, the No. 2 defendant in the trial after Saddam, tortured him in prison, putting out a cigarette on his head.
Abdel-Rahman has shown his determination to push ahead with the trial even amid the boycott. But the absence of defendants and their chosen lawyers has raised worries over the credibility of a landmark trial that U.S. and Iraqi officials hoped would help Iraqis move beyond the sharp divisions left by the Saddam era.
The defense team, which walked out during a stormy session on Sunday, has said they will not participate in the trial until Abdel-Rahman is removed, alleging he is biased against Saddam. Abdel-Rahman has appointed new defense attorneys.
The former Iraqi leader and the four other defendants have rejected the new lawyers and refuse to attend the trial until their original ones are restored. The remaining three attended a session on Wednesday, which in the absence of Saddam and Ibrahim was the smoothest day of testimony to date in the stormy trial.
The trial has been plagued by delays, arguments, insults and outbursts by Saddam and Ibrahim, and outside the court, two defense attorneys were assassinated.
Abdel-Rahman was brought in as chief judge after his predecessor resigned amid criticism he was not controlling the proceedings.
Saddam and his co-defendants are on trial for the killing of more than 140 Shiites after the 1982 attempt on the former ruler’s life in Dujail, north of Baghdad. They face death by hanging if convicted.
The defense team accuses Abdel-Rahman, a Kurd, of having a “personal feud» with Saddam because the judge was born in Halabja, a Kurdish village hit by a poison gas attack allegedly ordered by Saddam in 1988. Some 5,000 Kurds were killed in that attack, including several of Abdel-Rahman’s relatives.
Saddam’s original chief attorney, Khaled al-Dulaimi, also claimed that Saddam’s regime tried Abdel-Rahman in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison in 1977. He said the judge was a member of a Kurdish party that was opposed to Saddam and so “holds political animosity with the defendant.”
The boycott began in a stormy session Sunday, Abdel-Rahman’s first presiding over the trial. The chief judge threw out Ibrahim and a defense lawyer for causing a disturbance, and the entire defense team then walked out in protest.
Saddam and two other defendants then refused to work with their court-appointed defense lawyers and were escorted out of the court. Another defendant later joined them in rejecting the new attorneys.
In testimony Thursday, the day’s second witness said Ibrahim, Saddam’s half-brother and former intelligence chief, personally participated in torturing him after he was arrested in the crackdown in Dujail following the assassination attempt against Saddam.
The witness said he was taken to the Baghdad headquarters of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency, where interrogators forced him to strip and hung him from his feet. They beat him with hoses and applied electric shocks to him, including to “sensitive parts” of his body, he said.
At one point, Ibrahim entered the interrogation and put out a cigarette on his head, the witness said. The first witness to take the stand Thursday said he was 13 years old when he was arrested in the Dujail sweep. He told the court his sister was stripped naked anmd tortured in front of him.
“People returning (to their cells) from torture sessions could not walk for days. We had to carry them to the toilet,” he said.