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Friday, July 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:34 A.M.
Saddam defiant in court, says Bush is the criminal
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Saddam's 26-minute court appearance, similar to an arraignment in the United States, was the first step in a lengthy process aimed at putting him on trial for crimes against humanity, genocide and other offenses. He was followed by 11 of his former top deputies, who were accused of roles in many of the same atrocities.
Saddam's presence before the court was intended to be a brief procedural formality, a chance for the investigating judge to inform the former president of his status as a criminal defendant and of his rights to legal counsel. But Saddam stretched the proceeding into a 26-minute event replete with feisty exchanges with the judge, who sat behind a wooden desk a few feet away.
He questioned the judge's credentials. He insisted he deserved immunity because he had been acting in an official capacity. And he challenged the legitimacy of the special tribunal set up to judge him and his associates, saying, "Everyone knows this is theater by [President] Bush the criminal in an attempt to win the election."
When he walked into the small courtroom, escorted by two burly Iraqi bailiffs, he appeared thinner than at the time of his Dec. 13 capture by U.S. forces near Tikrit. The beard and hair grown during eight months as a fugitive had been trimmed. Instead of the Italian suits he once wore, he was clad in off-the-rack slacks and a sport coat purchased by the U.S. military for his appearance.
His sullen demeanor quickly gave way to finger-wagging, animated hand gestures, hectoring comments and contemplative stroking of his salt-and-pepper beard.
The one-time law student said he had been "elected by the people" and asked the judge, "What law formed this court?"
The 11 other defendants, who included former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, were far less combative. Some remained visibly fearful throughout their brief appearances, invoking God on repeated occasions. All signed a document acknowledging they had been read their legal rights, something Saddam refused to do.
Like Saddam, many appeared far different than they had during their days in power. Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali," who reportedly gave the orders to use chemical weapons against Kurdish separatists in the late 1980s, used a walking stick to enter the courtroom.
The proceedings were conducted on the grounds of one of Saddam's former palaces, now a U.S. military base called Camp Victory. Saddam's appearance was videotaped but not broadcast live.
A small pool of journalists in the room took notes, but their accounts of the exchanges between Saddam and the judge varied slightly.
Fewer than 30 people were in the chamber. Other than the journalists, only a few Iraqis were present, including a representative of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the tribunal president, Salem Chalabi.
Saddam is under the legal custody of the new Iraqi interim government, which took political control of the country Monday, but is being held in a U.S.-run detention facility at an undisclosed location.
But when he entered the courthouse, handcuffed to a chain around his waist, uniformed U.S. military personnel withdrew so Saddam would see only Iraqi guards. As he was led to the courtroom, people inside could hear the clanking of his chains, which were removed only when he was outside the wooden door to the chamber.
The proceeding began with the judge asking the former president to state his name. "I am Saddam Hussein, president of the Republic of Iraq," he responded.
When the judge asked whether he was the former president, Saddam insisted he was the "present" and "current" president.
He then was asked a series of questions: Where was he born? Was he once the leader of the Baath party? Was he once the leader of the armed forces? He responded to some questions orally and shook his head affirmatively to others.
He demanded that the judge introduce himself. The judge, whom officials have refused to identify for security reasons, said he was the investigating judge for Iraq's special tribunal, set up to try cases of major crimes committed while Saddam was president.
"You are representing the occupying forces?" Saddam asked.
"No," responded the judge. "I'm an Iraqi representing Iraq." He said he'd been appointed as a judge "by a presidential decree under the former regime," meaning by Saddam, and was resuming his duties.
Saddam made his most defiant comments after the judge read a list of seven atrocities the former president is alleged to have ordered: the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988; the 1983 killing of members of a prominent Kurdish family, the Barzani clan; the murder of political party leaders over a 30-year period; the murder of religious leaders; a campaign of brutal attacks against Kurds in the 1980s; the violent suppression of Kurds and Shiites after the 1991 Persian Gulf War; and the event that prompted that war, Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
When the judge mentioned Kuwait, Saddam became agitated.
"I'm surprised you're charging me with this as an Iraqi, when everyone knows Kuwait is part of Iraq," Saddam told the judge, repeating an argument his government used to justify the invasion.
Saddam said later in the hearing that he was protecting the Iraqi people from Kuwaiti "dogs." He charged that oil-rich Kuwait had been turning Iraqi women into "10 dinar prostitutes" and that he had sought to "defend Iraqi honor" and revive Iraq's "historical rights" to Kuwait.
The judge cut him off, saying, "You are in a legal hearing and we will not allow you to speak in any way that is disrespectful to this court."
Later, when he was told he could have a court-appointed lawyer if he could not afford one, Saddam scoffed. "According to the Americans," he said, "I have millions of dollars in Geneva, so I should be able to afford one."
At the end of the proceeding, after the judge had informed him of his rights, including the right to be represented by a lawyer and the right to remain silent, Saddam refused to sign a brief document indicating he had been read his rights.
As Saddam stood up to leave, one of the Iraqi guards in the room rushed to help him up. "Take it easy," the former president said. "I'm an old man."
If convicted, Saddam and his associates could face the death penalty. Although capital punishment was suspended during the U.S. occupation, Iraq's interim government has decided to lift the ban, Chalabi said.
References to the death-penalty provision in Iraqi law, mentioned several times during yesterday's proceeding, appeared to unnerve several defendants.
Trials are not expected to begin until late this year or early next year.
Material from The Associated Press, Baltimore Sun and Newsday is included in this report.
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