Hussein emerges defiant

Facing genocide, war crimes charges, he lectures judge, claims immunity

Ex-president challenges legitimacy of court

Iraq In Transition

July 02, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Saddam Hussein, unbowed, sparring with an Iraqi judge over legalities and all the while insisting that he remains the elected president of Iraq, was formally charged in a Baghdad courtroom yesterday with genocide and crimes against humanity.

The deposed leader defended his 1990 invasion against the "mad dogs" of Kuwait, calmly challenged the jurisdiction of the court and gave every indication that he would fight accusations that could lead to his execution.

"I am Saddam Hussein al-Madji, the president of Iraq," he said at the start of yesterday's proceeding, the equivalent of an arraignment.

"You mean former president?" the judge asked.

"No, Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq," he replied. "I am saying that because I respect the will of the people. The people elected me."

Looking gaunt, with bags under his eyes and his mustache and beard more gray than black, Hussein appeared far different from the dictator who favored tailored suits and creased military garb during a reign marked by three disastrous wars and the executions of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen.

But his appearance and demeanor were also far different from the man captured in December by U.S. forces. Then, he looked disoriented, with wild hair and eyes and a longish beard caked with mud.

Ever defiant

Yesterday, far from repentant, the 67-year-old former law student took oratory control of the proceedings at several stages. He appeared in the courtroom about 12:15 p.m., before separate appearances by 11 members of his regime, including Tariq Aziz, his former foreign minister.

Hussein seemed downcast at times, but also showed a flash of anger, several moments of frustration, a penchant for lecturing. And, briefly, he smiled.

Asked whether he could afford a lawyer, Hussein turned to reporters in the room and, grinning, replied: "The Americans say I have millions hidden in Switzerland. How can I not have the money to pay for one?"

As shown on video and according to pool reporters in the court - translations of whose accounts varied slightly - Hussein frequently jabbed a finger at the judge, admonished him for mentioning the U.S.-led coalition that deposed him and declared that President Bush should be the person in the dock.

"This is theater by Bush, the criminal, to help him with his campaign," Hussein said in a voice that was hoarse throughout the proceeding.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan brushed off questions about Hussein's remarks. "I'm sure Saddam Hussein will continue to say all sorts of things," McClellan said. "What's important is that Saddam Hussein and his regime leaders are going to face justice from the Iraqi people before an Iraqi court."

Hussein said several times that he could not be forced to answer for the actions of his army - its invasion of Kuwait, the gassing of ethnic Kurds, the mowing down of Shiite Muslim insurgents by helicopter gunships after the gulf war - because of presidential immunity.

Hussein is in legal custody of Iraq's new interim government, which took political control of the country on Monday. But he remains in physical custody of the U.S. military.

Yesterday, he was flown by helicopter from an undisclosed location outside Camp Victory, a U.S. military base on the grounds of one of his former palaces near Baghdad International Airport. He was then hustled into an armored bus and taken to a building that has been converted into a courthouse.

He entered in a blue jump suit, book-ended by two beefy Iraqi security guards, his wrists cuffed and attached to a chain around his waist. Apache helicopters flew overhead. Six more armed Iraqi guards were posted at the courthouse entrance.

He was allowed to change into clothes from a Baghdad store, and as a few Iraqi officials and pool journalists waited for him to enter, they heard the clank of his restraints being shed. Iraqis in the court, including interim national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, stared intently at Hussein as he entered.

He wore a charcoal pin-stripe jacket, brown pants, a starched, open-collar white shirt, brown socks and polished black shoes.

As he was assisted, unbound, to an office chair separated from the judge by a wooden rail, he at first looked disoriented. His eyes flitted. His chin slumped into his hand. He waved away a fly. He smoothed his eyebrows and stroked his beard, trimmed far shorter than immediately after his capture. He appeared nervous.

From the moment the judge began speaking until the end of the 26-minute proceeding, though, Hussein was defiant, growing more so as the clock ticked. Sitting alone, with no attorney advising him, he refused from the beginning to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court, insisting that the invasion of Iraq did not change his standing as president.

"I am still the president of the republic," he insisted. "The occupation cannot take that away. What law formed this court?"

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