Saddam on hunger strike as trial presses ahead

Saddam Hussein and three co-defendants today claimed they had launched a hunger strike to protest against the chief judge in their trial.

Saddam Hussein and three co-defendants today claimed they had launched a hunger strike to protest against the chief judge in their trial.

Prosecutors, meanwhile tried to build their case of Saddam’s direct role in executions and imprisonment of Shiites in the 1980s.

A key document presented to the court allegedly showed that Saddam approved rewards for intelligence agents involved in the crackdown against residents of Dujail, a mainly Shiite town north of Baghdad, following a 1982 assassination attempt against him there.

If convicted in the killing of nearly 150 Shiites from Dujail, Saddam and his seven co-defendants could face death by hanging.

Saddam said he had not eaten in three days, while his former intelligence chief and half brother Barzan Ibrahim said he had been on strike for two days.

Two other defendants, Awad Bandar and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, also said they were on hunger strike.

Their claims of a hunger strike could not be independently confirmed. The defendants are being held in US military detention facility, although they are in Iraq’s legal custody, but there was no comment immediately available from the Americans.

Judge Raid Juhi, a court spokesman who investigated the Dujail case, did not deny the defendants were refusing food when asked about the strike after the day’s three-hour session.

“This is an administrative problem that the court is working to verify and it will work also to solve it...with the responsible parties in the custodial authorities,” he told reporters.

“But, as you could see, the defendants are in good health,” he said.

Chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman, who took over the court last month, has tried to impose order in a court where outbursts and abuse, mostly by Saddam and Ibrahim, have frequently overshadowed the proceedings. They also led to criticism of Abdel-Rahman’s predecessor, fellow Kurd Rizgar Mohammed Amin, for not doing enough to rein in the two.

But after a short period of shouting and hurling abuse at the start of today’s session, the court was calm as prosecutors continued for a second consecutive day to try to directly link Saddam and his co-defendants to arrests and executions of hundreds of Shiites from Dujail.

Ibrahim, Saddam’s half brother and one time intelligence chief, spoke at length, denying he had any part in the crackdown and insisting he personally released detainees.

He spoke from the defendants’ pen wearing only his long underwear, worn for the second day in a row in protest at being forced to attend the trial. But his orderly arguments represented the first time any of the defendants have dealt at length with the charges they face – and his participation could boost the legitimacy of a tribunal whose fairness some have questioned.

Juhi, commenting on Ibrahim’s attire, told reporters: “You must have noticed that all the defendants wore appropriate attire. Defendant Barzan wore what he thought was appropriate.”

After nearly three hours of testimony, Abdel-Rahman adjourned the trial until February 28.

The day’s session began with the turbulence that has often marked the sessions. Saddam entered and shouted his support for Iraqi insurgents, yelling “Long live the mujahedeen.” Later, during the testimony, he shouted, “I say to all Iraqis fight and liberate your country.”

“For three days we have been holding a hunger strike protesting against your way of treating us – against you and your masters,” he told the judge.

Ibrahim complained that he and other defendants had been forced to attend the proceedings against their will. “You brought me by force in my pyjamas and I have been on a hunger strike for two days,” he said. “Are you familiar with the law, or did they just bring you here?” Ibrahim asked Abdel-Rahman provocatively. The judge ignored the questions and smiled.

The defendants refused to attend sessions held on February 1 and 2 after their defence team walked out of court on January 29.

The defence lawyers have refused to participate in the trial until Abdel-Rahman is removed, accusing him of bias against Saddam.

Abdel-Rahman appointed new defence lawyers, but Saddam and other defendants have so far refused to accept them.

But yesterday, Abdel-Rahman ordered the defendants to attend the session. Saddam walked in on his own, but Ibrahim had to be pulled into the court - shouting and struggling and wearing only his long underwear – by guards who held him by the arms.

Today, the prosecution put on the stand three former members of Saddam’s regime – a former secretary of Saddam, a former provincial governor and an anonymous intelligence official.It also displayed to the court a document dated July 21, 1982 – 13 days after the assassination attempt – in which the Mukhabarat, the intelligence agency headed by Ibrahim at the time, recommended rewards for six employees for their role in the arrests.

The document bore a signature that the prosecution said was Ibrahim’s. Below it was written the word “agreed” with what was allegedly Saddam’s signature.

On the witness stand, Hamed Youssef Hamadi – Saddam’s secretary at the time - was asked whose handwriting was on the memo. “It looks like President Saddam’s,” he said.

Ibrahim disputed the authenticity of the document. He cross-examined all three witnesses and at the same time gave his own account of his role in the Dujail crackdown. Abdel-Rahman allowed him to speak, largely uninterrupted.

Ibrahim said he went to Dujail on the day that gunmen opened fire on Saddam’s motorcade, then returned to the village the following day. He claimed he ordered the release of more than 80 detainees held at the ruling Baath Party’s headquarters in the town.

“I released all the detainees inside the hall – more than 80 persons. I swear to God I said goodbye to them one by one and apologised,” he said.

After those two visits, Ibrahim continued, “I never heard of Dujail ever again. I never got a report on it. It was all handed over to the General Security Services,” a separate agency.

In previous sessions, some prosecution witnesses – Dujail residents arrested in the crackdown – have testified that Ibrahim was personally involved in torturing them.

For the first time since the trial began in October, Ramadan, Saddam’s former Vice President – was implicated by a witness for other than the reprisal destruction of farm land and orchards owned by Dujail residents.

The day’s last witness, Hamadi, testified that he had been told by a senior intelligence official that he was relieved of investigating the case after questioning seven suspects, making room for Ramadan, who took over.

Ramadan disputed the allegation and Saddam, coming for the rescue of his long-time aide, said that for Ramadan to do this would have to be done by an order from him.

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