Saddam Hussein’s trial resumed today with a new judge after a shake up that raised worries over whether political interference is threatening the tribunal’s independence.
The new chief judge, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, immediately moved to show a tougher face than his predecessor – who resigned after criticisms that he gave Saddam too free rein.
Abdel-Rahman barked at a defence lawyer who tried to interrupt him to make a legal point during the judge’s opening statement.
“Sit down and I will later give you the opportunity. Do not interrupt the court,” Abdel-Rahman shouted at Salih al-Armouti.
When the lawyer persisted, the judge said: ”I’m speaking to you in clear Arabic language. Do not interrupt the court.”
The judge also changed the order in which Saddam and his seven co-defendants were called into the court at the start of the session. Instead of coming in last, the former Iraqi leader was summoned first, apparently to avoid the scene of earlier sessions, when Saddam’s co-defendants stood in respect for him as he entered.
The resumption had been delayed for nearly a week when some judges on the five-member panel hearing the trial opposed the appointment of Abdel-Rahman as the presiding judge.
Saddam and his seven co-defendants are charged with 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 trial, which began on October 19, has been plagued by delays, chaotic outbursts by Saddam and the assassination of two defence lawyers.
Heading into today’s session, Saddam’s defence team said they would file motions questioning the court’s independence and legitimacy because of the shake-up among the judges.
“The trial is going through a legal crisis,” lawyer Khamis al-Obeidi said. “The new chief judge needs a long time to familiarise himself with the details of the case.”
After the last session on December 22, the court was thrown into confusion when the chief judge hearing the case since the beginning, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, resigned.
Amin cited health reasons for his decision. But politicians had complained about the slow pace of the proceedings and Amin’s patience in the face of frequent outbursts by Saddam and one of his co-defendants, Barzan Ibrahim.
Amin’s deputy, Saeed al-Hammash, had been expected to take over as chief judge but was moved off the case after allegations he once was a member of Saddam’s Baath party. Al-Hammash, a Shiite, denied Baath membership and maintained he was the victim of a conspiracy.
Abdel-Rahman – who, like Amin, is a Kurd – was brought in to serve as chief judge. But a new session last Tuesday was cancelled at the last minute because some of the judges were angered over the shake up.