BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Saddam Hussein and four other defendants refused to attend at a new session of his trial Wednesday and his lawyers boycotted the proceedings, demanding the removal of the chief judge, who they claim is biased against the former Iraqi leader.
Chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman pressed ahead with the proceedings with court-appointed defense lawyers and only three defendants present.
He first held a half-hour closed session Wednesday, barring press and television from the courtroom. It was not clear whether Saddam was brought for the hearing, and court officials did not say what took place.
When the session was later opened to the public, Saddam and four other co-defendants were not present. Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi asked the judge to force all defendants to attend. Abdel-Rahman ruled that the court proceedings will continue but that the five-judge panel would consider the request in future hearings.
Abdel-Rahman then turned to the three remaining defendants, surrounded by empty chairs in the pen set up in front of the bench.
“Because your lawyers stayed away and dropped your cases, the court has decided to appoint the lawyers who are in the courtroom,” he told them.
“I have a lawyer. I paid 16 million dinars (about US$8,000),” exclaimed one defendant, Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid.
Abdel-Rahman raised his hand sharply to interrupt him. “If your lawyers attend the next sessions, they will take their positions as your attorneys,” he said. “Until they attend, you will be having the gentlemen who are in the courtroom now to defend your rights.”
The court then heard the testimony of a prosecution witness, a woman whose identity was withheld and who spoke from behind a beige curtain.
The boycott by the defendants and lawyers is the latest problem to plague Saddam’s tumultuous trial, which in its previous eight sessions saw numerous delays, outbursts by Saddam and Barzan Ibrahim, his former intelligence chief and the top co-defendant, and finally a shakeup among the judges.
Abdel-Rahman was brought in as chief judge Sunday to replace his predecessor, who resigned amid criticism he was not doing enough to control the proceedings.
In a stormy session on Sunday, Abdel-Rahman took a tough line, throwing out Ibrahim and a defense lawyer. The entire defense team walked out in protest and Saddam was escorted out after he rejected new court-appointed attorneys.
Now he faces the problem of how long he continue the trial without most of the defendants and with court-appointed lawyers, who have already come under criticism as too passive. During Sunday’s session, they declined to cross-examine any of the witnesses who testified.
Saddam’s defense team have said they would not attend the trial until Abdel-Rahman is removed. The former Iraqi leader and four other defendants have refused to work with the replacement lawyers.
Saddam’s chief attorney Khaled al-Dulaimi, who stayed in the Jordanian capital Amman on Wednesday, criticized the court for holding the closed session. He did not know whether Saddam was forced to attend the closed portion.
“It’s dangerous to hold a closed-door hearing. Our clients may be forced to attend, they may coerced and this is illegal,” he told The Associated Press.
“The trial is unfair and the judge is acting on behalf of the prosecution, which means that he has lost impartiality,” he said.
The defense team accsues Abdel-Rahman, a Kurd, of having a “personal feud” with Saddam because the judge was born in the village of Halabja, which was subjected to a 1988 poison gas attack allegedly ordered by Saddam. Some 5,000 Kurds were killed in that attack, including several of Abdel-Rahman’s relatives.
Speaking Wednesday to Al-Jazeera television, 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 opposition party that “was an enemy to my client.”
Al-Dulaimi’s claims could not be immediately confirmed. “During our search in the archives, we have found that (Abdel-Rahman) has a personal and political feud with president Saddam Hussein and the (Baathist) command,” al-Dulaimi said.
Saddam and co-defendants are on trial for the killing of more than 140 Shiites after a 1982 attempt on the ex-president’s life in the town of Dujail north of Baghdad. They face death by hanging if convicted.
Arab media reports claimed Abdel-Rahman was detained and tortured in the 1980s by Saddam’s security agents. Efforts to contact Abdel-Rahman were unsuccessful.
However, another judge who is not part of the Dujail trial said Abdel-Rahman suffered permanent injuries to his back and one of his legs due to torture. The judge spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the Saddam case.
Marieke Wierda, a legal expert with the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, said the “burden of proof” is on defense lawyers to show Abdel-Rahman’s lack of impartiality.
There are precedents of trials proceeding without the defense lawyers appointed by defendants, she said. But testimony by multiple witness in the absence of defendants and their lawyers would “impinge on perceptions of fairness,” she said.
“The court will have to find quality defense lawyers. We are very concerned about the passive attitude of the lawyers appointed in the last session,” she told the AP.