BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – The former judge who sentenced 148 Shiites to death in the 1980s denied rushing to judgment, saying the suspects confessed in a 16-day trial and insisting there were no teenagers among them, as prosecutors questioned him on a crucial point in the case against Saddam Hussein.
But Awad al-Bandar acknowledged the 148 had only one defense lawyer, appointed by his Revolutionary Court in the 1984 trial.
Wearing a red checkered traditional headdress, al-Bandar was alone in the defendants’ pen, often appearing nervous and agitated as chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman and prosecutors questioned him.
Al-Bandar, one of seven co-defendants in the trial of Saddam and members of his regime, was cross-examined last month, but he was called back for both the defense and prosecution to present new documents.
Saddam was not present during Thursday’s two-hour session, after which the court was adjourned until April 12. On Wednesday, the former president was cross-examined by prosecutors for six hours for the first time in the six-month-old trial.
Prosecutors are seeking to show that al-Bandar’s Revolutionary Court gave the 148 Shiites only a cursory trial on charges they tried to assassinate Saddam in the town of Dujail in 1982, and that Saddam approved their death sentences even though many had nothing to do with the shooting attack on him.
Al-Bandar said his court carried out a 16-days trial, working from nine a.m. to midnight. “I was keen to carry out justice and I hoped that the defendants would be found not guilty,” he said, though he acknowleded that no one in the Dujail case was acquitted. He said they all confessed to trying to assassinate Saddam “with instructions from the government of Iran to overthrow the regime in Iraq.”
But he said the 148 suspects had only one court-assigned lawyer. “We appointed a lawyer because no lawyer was hired,” he said. Asked how many lawyers, he said the court’s policy was was to appoint one lawyer per case regardless of the number of defendants.
“All the defendants were present in the court. … They confessed before me and the ruling was issued,” al-Bandar said. “If I, as a judge, issue a sentence in accordance with the law, should I be punished?”
Saddam and the seven former members of his regime face possible execution by hanging if found guilty over the crackdown launched against residents of Dujail after Saddam’s motorcade was shot at as it passed through the Shiite town in 1982. Hundreds, including women and children, were imprisoned, some of them saying they were tortured, and 148 Shiites were killed.
The defendants have insisted their actions were a legal response to the assassination attempt. But prosecutors have sought to show the sweep went far beyond the actual attackers, including children as young as 11 years old who were killed.
Defense lawyers on Thursday presented a series of handwritten documents from 1984 they said were confessions by some of the Shiites, telling their interrogators they plotted with the pro-Iranian Shiite Dawa party to kill Saddam.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi noted that one of the confessions presented was by a suspect, Ahmed Jassem, whose identity card showed he was 15 years old at the time. “He was a minor … and he was tried and sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court,” he said. “The identity cards are forged,” al-Bandar shouted. “I did not sentence minors. I sentenced adults. They were all over 20 years old,” al-Bandar said.
In his testimony Wednesday, Saddam insisted he was convinced that the 148 were guilty, but evaded questions about how closely he looked at the evidence. Asked if he had read the evidence against the men before referring them for trial, Saddam replied, “If the constitution requires the head of state to review documents before referral, then I abided by it.” Pressed by prosecutors on the point, he snapped, “I have answered.”
After the men were sentenced to death, “I was convinced the evidence that was presented was sufficient” to approve the sentences, he said.
Al-Moussawi asked Saddam if he was aware that 28 of the Shiites sentenced to death were under 18 and presented identity cards showing some were minors. Prosecutors have said an 11-year-old boy was among those killed.
Saddam said the identity cards were forged, then added, “Is it the responsibility of the head of the state to check the IDs of defendants and see how old they are?”
Wednesday’s session was the first opportunity prosecutors have had to directly question Saddam on the charges. The former leader cooperated with the court at times, smiling and relaxed. But at times, he was sharp and combative, bickering with Abdel-Rahman and denouncing the court as “illegitimate.” He attempted to tap into Sunni resentment of the Shiite-led Interior Ministry, which many Sunnis accuse of backing death squads. The Interior Ministry “kills thousands of people on the streets and tortures them,” he said.
This week, the tribunal indicted Saddam and six former members of his regime on separate charges of genocide for a campaign against Kurds in the 1980s that killed an estimated 100,000 people. A separate trial will be held on those charges, possibly beginning in 45 days, though some officials have questioned whether the tribunal will be able to conduct two trials simultaneously. In any case, it means a drawn-out legal process amid continued violence and political wrangling over the formation of Iraq’s next government.