A quieter Saddam Hussein sat in his defendant’s chair at the resumption of his trial in Baghdad today, two weeks after he refused to attend the last session in a court he called “unjust”.
Saddam and seven co-defendants are on trial over the deaths of more than 140 Shiite Muslims following a 1982 assassination attempt against him in the town of Dujail, north of Baghdad.
The deposed president, who was wearing a dark suit, but no tie, today, refused to attend the previous session on December 7. “I will not come to an unjust court! Go to hell!” he said in an outburst in court the day before.
His behaviour was calmer during the early parts of the trial today. After greeting the court with a traditional “Peace be upon you,” he sat quiety in the defendants’ area and appeared to pay close attention to the proceedings, at times taking notes.
Later on, Saddam, interrupting a witness, asked the judge if the court could take a break for prayer. Though the witness agreed the trial should pause, the judge ordered it to continue. Saddam later closed his eyes and appeared to pray from his defendant’s chair.
The prosecution’s first witness today was a 14-year-old boy in 1982. After he told the court: “In 1982, when Saddam entered Dujail ... “ the former leader said out loud: “Saddam who?” implying the proper respect hadn’t been shown. The judge asked the witness who exactly he meant, and the witness restated: “I mean the former Iraqi president.”
It was Saddam’s first court appearance following last week’s election, when Iraqis swarmed to the polls to vote for the country’s first full-term parliament since his downfall.
During previous sessions, Saddam has been defiant and combative at times, often trying to dominate the courtroom. He and his half brother- Barazan Ibrahim, who was head of the Iraqi intelligence during the Dujail incident- have used the procedures to protest their own conditions in detention.
The chief prosecutor in the case, Jaafar al-Mousawi said five prosecution witnesses were ready to take the stand on today. It would be up to the court to decided whether to hear all of them, he said. It was unclear how many more prosecution witnesses, if any, would follow.
“We are very prepared for the resumption of the trial,” al-Mousawi said.
“There is evidence and there are documents with Saddam’s signature on them,” he said. “When it’s time for the prosecution to make its case, there will be a surprise.”
He did not elaborate or provide any further details.
The court – which held its first session on October 19 – has so far heard nine witnesses, who often gave emotional testimonies of random arrests, hunger and beatings while in custody and torture in detention.
Khamis al-Ubeidi, a lawyer on Saddam’s defence team, argued that the “witnesses have no legal value. Their testimonies are based on coaching and unjustified narrative.”
He said the defence team had security concerns that it wanted to tell the court about.
“The court has to provide the lawyers and the defence witnesses with security,” he said yesterday. “How can a lawyer work if he cannot move freely because of the security situation?”
Some Iraqi government officials have said they hope the trial of Saddam will help heal the wounds of his regime’s victims and bring Iraqis closer together.
But the trial has also highlighted divisions between Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian groups, with many Sunni Arabs expressing sympathy with the former president and even nostalgia for his era.
By contrast, many Shiites and Kurds gloated over seeing the once powerful Saddam reduced to a defendant.
The prosecution of Saddam could be a lengthy process.
The Dujail case is the first of up to a dozen that prosecutors plan to bring to trial against Saddam and his Baath Party inner circle for atrocities during their 23-year rule.
The trial is taking place in the five-storey marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of Saddam’s feared Baath Party.
The building in Baghdad’s Green Zone – the heavily fortified district where Iraq’s government, parliament and the US Embassy are located – was heavily guarded.