Hussein excused from court

2 witnesses testify

trial resumes Dec. 21


BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Saddam Hussein refused to enter the courtroom for 4 1/2 hours yesterday and then persuaded the judges in closed session to excuse him from attending a third day of public testimony by survivors of torture in his regime's prisons.

With seven co-defendants present but the deposed leader's chair empty, the court heard two unnamed witnesses speak from behind a curtain about their brutal interrogations in the early 1980s. Chief Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin adjourned the trial until Dec. 21.

Like seven previous witnesses, the two men who testified yesterday offered nothing to link Hussein directly to the crime of which the defendants are accused - the slayings of 146 residents of Dujayl after a band of gunmen in the village opened fire on his motorcade in 1982.

Under questioning by the judge, the first witness conceded that the trial's most incriminating testimony was based on hearsay.

The witness had placed a defendant, Barazan Ibrahim Hasan, Hussein's half-brother and former intelligence chief, at the scene of a torture session. But he told the judge later that he was blindfolded at the time and thought Hasan was present because other prisoners told him so.

"When my turn came, the investigator asked me my name, and he turned to Barazan and asked him, `What shall we do with him?'" the witness said. Barazan replied: "Take him. He might be useful.' We were almost dead because of the beatings."

The witness added that he was taken to Baghdad in a van he described as crowded and "without windows." He said, "When we arrived at the building, they asked us to stand along the wall. We were told to stand only on one foot, and we kept on this position for two hours before we were taken to cells with red walls. I was thirsty, but the water was very hot."

After several days, the witness said he and other prisoners were placed in "Hall 63" and handcuffed for five days with little food. He said prisoners were taken away and brought back naked. "The signs of torture were clear on their bodies," he said.

Hussein and the seven co-defendants have been accused of planning and ordering mass arrests and torture, and of killing 146 people from Dujayl.

One day after he told the judge to "go to hell" and promised to not show up to what he called an illegal tribunal, Hussein carried out his promise in the courtroom yesterday. His seat remained empty when court convened.

Although the other defendants and their attorneys arrived as scheduled in the courtroom, Hussein's lawyers were left to defend him in his absence, and the judge said the court would relay the proceedings to the deposed leader.

In a statement, Hussein's lawyers said their client avoided the trial as a protest against what they described as mistreatment of him and his co-defendants. Hussein said in prepared remarks that the defendants were unable to conduct private meetings with their lawyers, denied a place to prepare a defense and were ill-equipped to argue against a prosecution with "unlimited resources at its disposal."

Hussein attended a closed-door hearing before the public session, and "the court decided that he should be removed from the hearing on the basis of the law," Raid Juhi, a court official, told reporters. He added that Hussein would be expected to attend the next session, Dec. 21.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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