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Saddam Hussein's trial degenerates into chaos on debut of new, tough judge

Monday, January 30, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A new judge cracked down Sunday in a chaotic session of Saddam Hussein's trial, ordering a co-defendant and a lawyer expelled from the courtroom. The entire defense team left in protest and Saddam was escorted out after a shouting match in which he yelled, "Down with America!"

Despite the turmoil, chief judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman pushed ahead, replacing the defense lawyers with court-appointed attorneys and hearing three prosecution witnesses before adjourning the trial until later this week.

It was Abdel-Rahman's first session at the helm, replacing a jurist who stepped down amid criticism that he was not doing enough to stop Saddam and his half brother, co-defendant Barzan Ibrahim, from dominating the trial with frequent outbursts and disruptions.

Defense lawyers criticized the tough approach, saying it was preventing Saddam and his seven co-defendants from getting a fair trial. The eight could face death by hanging if convicted in the killing of at least 140 Shiites after a July 1982 attempt on Saddam's life in the town of Dujail north of Baghdad.

Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is part of Saddam's defense team but did not attend Sunday's session, denounced the court as "lawless" and repeated calls for it to be moved out of Iraq.

"Now the court is seated without the defendants' counsel of choice. This is wrong," Clark said, speaking from New York.

Abdel-Rahman wasted little time in distinguishing himself from his predecessor, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, telling the court at the start of the proceedings that anyone who broke the rules would be thrown out.

The session, which was the first since Dec. 22, rapidly degenerated into chaos. Ibrahim called the court "the daughter of a whore" and refused to sit down. Abdel-Rahman ordered him removed, and Ibrahim scuffled with two guards before they dragged him out of the courtroom.

Then defense lawyer Salih al-Armouti, a Jordanian, was forcibly removed from the court for yelling at Abdel-Rahman.

The entire defense team walked out in protest. "This is an unjust and illegitimate court," Khalil al-Dulaimi, Saddam's chief lawyer, told the judge on the way out.

Protesting Ibrahim's expulsion and shouting "down with traitors" and "down with America," Saddam got into a heated argument with the judge, rejecting the court-appointed lawyers and demanding to leave.

When the judge ordered guards to remove him, Saddam -- holding a Quran under his arm -- became indignant, saying he was choosing to go and referring to his time in power.

"For 35 years I led you, and you say, 'Eject him?"' Saddam said.

"I am a judge and you are a defendant," Abdel-Rahman replied. "And you have violated order in the court. I am implementing the law."

After two more defendants asked to leave, the trial continued -- with only four defendants present and none of their original lawyers.

The court-appointed lawyers declined opportunities to cross-examine the three witnesses, who all spoke of mass detentions and torture after the attempt on Saddam's life.

Richard Dicker, the head of the International Justice Program at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the failure to question the witnesses was "probably the most disturbing part of the day."

"The events take us further away from the basic practices of fairness that are necessary in any trial and especially in a trial of this significance," he said.

Ibrahim's comments were "clearly provocative and disrespectful," but Abdel-Rahman was "a little too trigger-happy," he told The Associated Press.

Raid Juhi, the court's investigating judge and spokesman, said Abdel-Rahman acted within the law to maintain order. The defense team can petition to return, and "the court will look into any such request," he told reporters at the court.

Some Iraqis praised Abdel-Rahman for imposing control on a court they said had gotten out of hand under Amin.

Saeed al-Hammash, a former member of the five-judge panel hearing the case who was removed in the recent shake-up, said Ibrahim had been trying to derail the session. "The judge's decision was right when he threw him out of the court," he said.

It was the latest drama in a trial already beset by long delays, the assassination of two defense lawyers and the controversy over the change in judges.

Critics have said the turmoil gives credence to claims that Saddam cannot get a fair trial in a country torn apart by ethnic, religious and tribal divisions and an insurgency comprising large numbers of his supporters.

Michael Scharf, an international law professor who helped train judges for the trial, said Abdel-Rahman has to walk a "tightrope" between maintaining order and fairness.

"The risk is that the judge's tactics will be viewed as too heavy-handed and therefore unfair," said Scharf, head of the international law center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

After 4 1/2 hours, Abdel-Rahman adjourned the trial until Wednesday or Thursday, depending on when the Islamic new year's holiday falls.

The three prosecution witnesses -- two women and a man -- testified from behind a beige curtain, with their voices distorted to hide their identities.

The first woman told the court she was arrested several days after the assassination attempt and her interrogators removed her Islamic headscarf and gave her electric shocks to her head.

"I thought my eyes would pop out," she said. Sixteen other members of her family also were arrested, and seven of them were killed in detention -- including her husband, who she said was tortured to death.

She added her daughter was less than two months old on the day of her arrest.

"I could not feed my little girl as she cried, there was no milk and no nursing bottle, she almost died," she said of the baby.

The man, who testified last, told the court that he was only six when he was arrested while playing at his aunt's home with cousins. At the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, guards lured him and other children with promises of apples and bananas only to tie them by the feet, he said.

The other female witness said she and 14 other members of her family, including children as young as seven months, were rounded up from Dujail.

"They tortured a young girl who was blind. Women and children were crying, there was no food and no milk formula for children," she said, sobbing. "Has anything like that ever happened anywhere in the world?"


Associated Press reporters Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.


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