BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP – Saddam Hussein’s trial collapsed into chaos shortly after resuming Sunday, with one defendant dragged out of court and the defense team walking out in protest. The former Iraqi leader was then escorted out after he shouted “down with traitors” and refused his new court-appointed lawyers.
The new chief judge, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, pressed ahead with the proceedings even after the opening drama, hearing a prosecution witness, as he sought to assert tight control over the court.
Abdel-Rahman was installed as chief judge after his predecessor resigned amid complaints he was not doing enough to rein in Saddam’s frequent courtroom outbursts.
The stormy session was sure to increase doubts over the trial’s fairness — a vital concern in a nation that is trying to reconcile its Sunni Arab minority, which dominated Iraq under Saddam, and the Shiite Muslim majority that now controls the government.
Sunday’s proceedings, the first in over a month, disintegrated almost immediately into shouting and insults.
First, co-defendant Barzan Ibrahim was pulled out by guards after he stood and called the court “the daughter of a whore,” while Saddam shouted “down with traitors” and “down with the Americans.”
Then Abdel-Rahman, a Kurd, threw out a defense attorneys for arguing with him. The rest of the defense team stormed out in protest as the judge shouted after them, “Any lawyer who walks out will not be allowed back into this courtroom.”
Abdel-Rahman appointed four new defense lawyers. But Saddam stood and rejected them. Holding a copy of the Quran and other papers under his arm, he said he wanted to leave. After an argument with the judge — during which guards pushed Saddam back into his chair — guards escorted the former Iraqi leader out of the room.
Two other defendants also rejected their new lawyers and were allowed to leave.
The proceedings then resumed with only four of the eight defendants present, and none of their original lawyers.
The court began hearing an anonymous female prosecution witness, who testified for about an hour from behind a beige curtain, as several earlier witnesses have done to protect them from reprisals. The new defense lawyers declined the opportunity to cross-examine the witness.
Saddam and his seven co-defendants are charged in the deaths of about 140 Shiite Muslims following an assassination attempt against the former Iraqi leader in the Shiite town of Dujail in 1982. The defendants could face death by hanging if convicted.
The delayed television feed of the proceedings — which is controlled by the judges and broadcast throughout Iraq and the Arab world — was cut off right after Ibrahim’s initial outburst. It resumed some time later, cutting out the removal of Ibrahim and the subsequent fight with the lawyers but showing the judge’s arguments with Saddam.
Abdel-Rahman obviously came into the session aiming to impose control on a trial that has been plagued by delays and frequent outbursts by Saddam and Ibrahim, who is Saddam’s half-brother and former intelligence chief.
He began the proceedings with a show of authority, shouting at one defense lawyer for interrupting him and stressing in an opening statement that “political speeches” were not allowed and “if any defendant crosses the lines, he will be taken out of the room and his trial will be carried out with his absence.”
Ibrahim stood up, demanded to be allowed to speak and said, “Circumstances have forced us to deal with each other here, in spite of my belief that this tribunal is illegitimate, the daughter of a whore.”
The judge ordered him to sit down, shouting, “One more word and I’m throwing you out.” When Ibrahim refused to sit, two burly guards grabbed him by the arms and dragged him out of the court.
As they scuffled, Saddam stood and shouted, “Down with the traitors. Down with America.” Defense lawyers began shouting as well. “Is this a street demonstration, are you lawyers?” Abdel-Rahman barked at them.
The judge turned to defense lawyer, Salih al-Armouti, a Jordanian who recently joined the team, and asked if courts in his country would allow such behavior.
“My country gives me my rights,” al-Armouti replied.
Abdel-Rahman ordered guards to take al-Armouti out of the court, saying, “You have incited your clients and we will start criminal proceedings against you.” The rest of the defense team followed al-Armouti out in protest.
The chief judge appointed new defense lawyers, but Saddam rejected them and told the judge he had a right to leave if he does not accept his attorneys.
“You do not leave, I allow you to leave when I want to,” Abdel-Rahman said.
“For 35 years, I administered your rights,” Saddam replied, referring to his time in power.
“I am the judge and you are the defendant,” Abdel-Rahman said. Two guards pushed Saddam by his shoulders back into his chair, before they were ordered to lead the ousted ruler out of the room.
Saddam’s trial has been troubled since it started on Oct. 19, with the killing of two defense lawyers and another judge’s decision last month to step down.
Heading into Sunday’s session, Saddam’s defense team said they would file motions questioning the court’s independence and legitimacy because of the shake-up among the judges. Former chief judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin resigned in mid-January after politicians complained about the slow pace of the proceedings.
The trial had been due to resume on Tuesday, but that day’s session was abruptly called off after some members of the five-judge panel opposed Abdel-Rahman’s appointment over Amin’s deputy, Saeed al-Hammash, who was removed the case amid accusations he once belonged to Saddam’s Baath Party. Al-Hammash — a Shiite — denied the claims.
After the outbursts, the witness told the court she was arrested several days after the 1982 assassination attempt on Saddam. She said her interrogators removed her Islamic headscarf and gave her electric shocks to her head.
“I thought my eyes would pop out,” she said. Sixteen other members of her family also were arrested, and seven of them were killed in detention — including her husband, who she said was tortured to death.
She said two of the defendants who remained in the court — Ali Dayih Ali and Mizhar Abdullah Ruwayyid — were among those who came to her home to arrest her. The two defendants denied the accusation.
The court-appointed defense lawyers declined to cross-examine the witness and the court adjourned for a lunch break.
Amin, the former chief judge and a Kurd, watched the trial from home in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah and questioned whether his critics could run the tribunal any better than he did.
“I am happy that I am no longer part of this trial. I am happy to watch it on television while sitting in my house,” he told The Associated Press. “I wish the trial were run by a Shiite judge because I want to know how they are going to manage it”