BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -The defense began closing arguments in the trial of Saddam Hussein on Monday, but most of the lawyers boycotted the court because of the slaying last month of an attorney for the former Iraqi leader.
The murder of Khamis al-Obeidi overshadowed the session as a lawyer for Ali Dayih Ali, a lower-level defendant, delivered the first summation.
In a new security measure, the lawyer’s face was not shown in the television broadcast of the trial and his voice was electronically altered — unlike previous sessions in which the defense lawyers were openly shown.
The lawyers for Saddam and three of his top co-defendants were not present, and one of them told The Associated Press that they were boycotting the court until better security was put in place and other demands were met.
“Everyone is afraid,” Najib al-Nueimi said from Qatar. “We will not attend until our conditions are met.”
He said that besides better security, the defense wanted the trial adjourned to allow them time to prepare their final arguments, saying al-Obeidi’s death and security fears had distracted them from the case.
“We have all gotten threats. What do you expect us to do? Lawyers have closed down their offices and gone into hiding and taken their families to Jordan,” al-Nueimi said.
Al-Obeidi was abducted from his Baghdad home on June 21 and found shot to death hours later on a street near the Shiite slum of Sadr City. He was the third defense lawyer to be killed.
The defense has said the security threats against them undermine the fairness of the trial, which began in October, and a boycott could deeply damage a court that has been controversial from the start.
At the start of Monday’s session, chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman said he had received the defense’s requests but dismissed them, saying some were out of the court’s purview, others “violate the law.” He did not elaborate.
Abdel-Rahman expressed his regrets over al-Obeidi’s death, saying the court “strongly condemns any attack against lawyers or against any of those working in this court.”
He said the court had appointed lawyers to replace those who were not present. Ali was the sole defendant present at the start of the session. Abdel-Rahman said that was because each defendant would be called in individually for closing arguments, but al-Nueimi said Saddam and his top co-defendants — Barzan Ibrahim, Taha Yassin Ramadan and Awad al-Bandar — also were boycotting until their lawyers agreed to attend.
The court is to hear final arguments from Saddam and each of his seven co-defendants and from each of their lawyers, a process expected to take several sessions.
The eight are charged with crimes against humanity for a crackdown against Shiites in the town of Dujail launched after a 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam. They are accused of arresting hundreds of people, torturing women and children and killing 148 people sentenced to death for the attack on the former Iraqi leader.
Ali, a former local Baath Party official in Dujail, has been accused of writing letters to security officials informing on Shiite families after the shooting attack on Saddam’s motorcade. Some of those he allegedly informed on were imprisoned and later killed.
After his lawyer delivered his argument, Ali stood and denied any role in the crackdown, saying he was “feeling pain and agony to see myself accused with crimes against humanity.”
“Who am I to be tried today as a senior official of the former regime? I was a simple employee and low-ranking Baath Party member,” he said, repeating his claim that he was a post-graduate student in Baghdad at the time of the crackdown.
He said signatures alleged to be his on informant letters produced by the prosecution were forgeries. “I am sure one hundred percent that I did not write a word in this report against any person,” he said.
After the defense arguments, the court will adjourn for the judges to consider their verdicts. The eight face possible execution by hanging if convicted, though they have the chance of appeal.
Court officials have said they expect verdicts to be issued before a second trial of Saddam begins on Aug. 21. In that trial, Saddam and six other former members of his regime face charges for the Anfal Campaign in the 1980s that killed an estimated 100,000 Kurds and saw thousands of Kurdish villages razed.
But al-Nueimi warned that no defense lawyers would come forward for that case. “Nobody will participate. It would be crazy,” he said.