As trial opens, Hussein challenges authority

Iraq's deposed dictator defiantly faces tribunal, pleads not guilty to atrocities

October 20, 2005|By BORZOU DARAGAHI AND RICHARD BOUDREAUX | BORZOU DARAGAHI AND RICHARD BOUDREAUX,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A defiant Saddam Hussein proclaimed his innocence yesterday and rejected the legitimacy of the court trying him in the massacre of Shiite villagers in the town of Dujail in 1982.

Hussein, alert and energized at the start of the three-hour opening session of a trial that was later adjourned until Nov. 28, refused to disclose his name to the presiding judge.

"I maintain my position as the constitutional president of Iraq," he told the Kurdish judge, Rizgar Mohammad Amin. "And I have the right to remain silent about my identity. You know me. You know who I am, but I do not recognize your authority. I did not hire you."

The long-anticipated trial of Hussein and his seven co-defendants -- held under tight security inside the former Baath Party headquarters in the U.S.-protected Green Zone -- began two hours later than expected. The trial riveted most Iraqis, who followed the televised proceedings, which were broadcast across the Arab world on a 20-minute tape delay.

Meanwhile, violence continued to flare in Iraq yesterday. Insurgents were blamed for killing 19 people, including three election commission officials.

Also, an American soldier died and two others were injured after their vehicle struck a roadside bomb near Iskandariya, the U.S. military said.

Two mortar rounds landed in the Green Zone before the trial began, but the hearing proceeded relatively smoothly, despite the occasional fireworks that erupted between the defendants and the court.

In a testy 10-minute exchange, Amin patiently told Hussein that he would be given time to question the legitimacy of the court, insisting that Hussein enter his name into the record.

"The Iraqi people chose me. I don't answer to this so-called court," Hussein said. "I don't recognize you." When the judge finally stated Hussein's full name, date of birth and title as former president of Iraq, Hussein objected.

"Excuse me, I did not say formerly president," he told the judge. "I said I am the president."

"You say what you say," the judge calmly replied.

After Amin read the defendants their rights and the charges against them, he asked each for his plea. He began with the 68-year-old former president: "Mr. Saddam, go ahead. Are you guilty or innocent?"

Hussein -- holding a copy of the Quran he brought with him into the session and held throughout -- replied quietly, "I said what I said. I am not guilty," referring to his arguments earlier in the session.

Amin read out the plea: "Innocent."

Afterward, all the defendants except Hussein agreed to identify themselves for the court. They entered pleas of not guilty to charges related to the killing and punishment of villagers in Dujail in 1982.

One of the defendants, Awad Bandar, protested that the court had robbed him of his identity by not allowing him to wear a traditional Arab headdress in the courtroom.

The judge called a brief recess to allow four of the defendants to wear the headdress, considered symbolic of Arab identity throughout the Middle East.

Jaffar Mussawi, chief prosecutor of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, delivered a 30-minute presentation outlining the chronology of the events in Dujail, where nearly 150 boys and men were executed after a botched assassination attempt on Hussein in the town. Hundreds of Dujail residents were also tortured, jailed and banished for years.

During the presentation, the eight defendants' lawyers objected angrily, accusing Mussawi of veering from the Dujail case to other crimes of which Hussein and his deputies are accused.

After a second objection, Mussawi could be seen rummaging past pages in his speech, saying, "Fine, I'll only concentrate on Dujail."

At one point when a break was called, Hussein stood, smiling, and asked to step out of the room. When two guards tried to grab his arms to escort him, he angrily shook them off.

They tried to grab him again, and Hussein struggled to free himself. Hussein and the guards shoved each other and yelled for about a minute.

It ended with Hussein walking independently, with the two guards behind him, out of the room for the break.

The trial has proved as divisive for Iraqis as the constitution, with Sunni Arabs and die-hard nationalists opposing the trial as illegitimate and dishonoring the nation, while Shiites and Kurds see it as justice for the families of the thousands killed during Hussein's rule.

"We were praying to God that we would see Saddam being tortured slowly for what he has done against the Iraqi people in killing them and destroying their honor," said Mushtaq Hashem, 30, a Sadr City merchant, whose father and brother were killed in the 1991 Shiite uprising against Hussein in the south.

Of Hussein, he said: "He deserves the death sentence and it should be done publicly in front of all Iraqis. He doesn't deserve the right of attorney because his crimes are against humanity."

The Dujail trial is the first of about a dozen cases prosecutors intend to bring against Hussein and members of his inner circle in an attempt to hold them accountable for a 23-year rule that saw tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and imprisoned.

Borzou Daragahi and Richard Boudreaux write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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