BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Two prosecution witnesses testified before an empty defendants’ box as Saddam Hussein boycotted his own trial, choosing to watch the proceedings by video linkup.
The chief judge, who has appeared determined to push ahead whether Saddam and seven co-defendants attend or not, ordered the case halted Thursday until Feb. 13, apparently to give time to resolve a standoff that could damage the trial’s credibility.
Saddam’s original defense team refuses to take part unless chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman, who they allege is biased against the former Iraqi leader, is removed. Saddam and four other defendants have rejected court-appointed lawyers and refused to attend court sessions Wednesday and Thursday.
Abdel-Rahman ordered the remaining three defendants barred Thursday, saying they had caused a disturbance outside the court.
The two witnesses Thursday, who testified from behind a curtain to conceal their identities, said they were detained, then beaten and tortured at the Baghdad headquarters of the Mukhabarat, or intelligence agency.
Both men named Saddam’s half brother and co-defendant Barzan Ibrahim, who led the Mukhabarat at the time, as a participant in their torture.
Saddam, Ibrahim and six other defendants have been on trial since Oct. 19 for the killing of more than 140 Shiites after a 1982 attempt on the former president’s life in the town of Dujail north of Baghdad. If convicted, they face death by hanging.
The first of Thursday’s witnesses said he was 12 when he was arrested in Dujail, then tortured by interrogators who strung him by the hands and gave him electric shocks. He told the court his sister was stripped naked and beaten 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. He told the court his dead brother’s body was lined up in a group of eight bodies in Dujail the day after the attempt on Saddam’s life.
He also watched his father being beaten by a man he was later told was Ibrahim.
After several months at the Mukhabarat, and then in Abu Ghraib prison, the witness and his family were taken to a detention camp in the southern desert.
“The families there couldn’t recognize me because of the effect of torture on me,” he said. The second witness said Ibrahim tortured him after his arrest in the Dujail crackdown. He said interrogators forced him to strip and hung him from his feet. They beat him with hoses and applied electric shocks to his body, including “sensitive parts.” At one point, Ibrahim entered the interrogation room with two men in civilian clothes, the witness said. The former intelligence chief asked one of the men to light a cigarette for him, and Ibrahim put it out on the witness’s head while the two guards held him down, the witness said.
The trial has been plagued by the assassination of two defense attorneys, delays, arguments, insults and outbursts by Saddam and Ibrahim. Abdel-Rahman was brought in after his predecessor resigned amid criticism he was not controlling the proceedings.
The defense boycott has raised serious concerns about a trial that American and Iraqi officials hoped would help Iraqis move beyond the ethnic and religious divisions of the Saddam era.
A senior Western diplomat close to the court said Abdel-Rahman’s decision to proceed without the defendants and their lawyers was in line with Iraqi law. Speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the trial, the diplomat said Saddam and his co-defendants watched the trial from elsewhere in the courthouse building in Baghdad’s fortified “Green Zone.” He said Saddam met for 45 minutes with his court-appointed lawyer.
The defense team says Abdel-Rahman has a “personal feud” with Saddam ecause 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. They also say Saddam’s regime tried Abdel-Rahman in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison in 1977, a charge that could not be independently verified.
Marieke Wierda, a legal expert with New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice, cautioned that the absence of the defense team “raises a serious concern the trial will be undermined.”
“The legal process has to move ahead even if the accused absent themselves. But they must have the level of representation they deserve because of the seriousness of the charges,” she said. “It’s in the court’s interest to find an arrangement where the defense lawyers can come back.”