Doctors testify in Hussein's genocide trial

Injuries to Kurds in '80s attacks described

December 08, 2006|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Molly Hennessy-Fiske,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The doctor's testimony would have been shocking, if he weren't in Baghdad.

As he testified yesterday at Saddam Hussein's genocide trial about struggling to treat a crowd of vomiting villagers suffering from blindness, bubbles and rashes on their skin, sectarian violence raged on the streets outside.

Only a few reporters and about two dozen observers came to view the proceedings. Hussein himself remained subdued unlike during his previous trial, where he frequently broke into angry outbursts.

With Hussein already sentenced to death for the executions of 148 men and boys from Dujail and horrific violence an everyday event in Baghdad and beyond, the former president's current trial for the Anfal chemical weapons campaign against Iraq's Kurds in the 1980s has been largely ignored here.

Yesterday, testimony was delayed because of a bomb scare at the nearby Al Rasheed Hotel in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

And once it began, Hussein, 69, sat slouched in his chair, staring ahead, silent and impassive. Although defense lawyers had vowed to boycott the trial, some showed up this week, but they too remained largely quiet yesterday.

Those who attended heard two Kurdish doctors testify anonymously about their first encounters with victims of chemical weapons attacks in Kurdish villages in 1987.

The first, a clean-shaven man in his 40s, described standing in the yard of his clinic near the village of Khetia at dusk on April 16 as 10 helicopters and a half-dozen military planes dropped bombs containing a sweet-smelling gas on the nearby countryside that some compared to garlic, apples, grass and flowers.

By 3 a.m., a crowd of villagers had reached his clinic seeking treatment, including women and children blinded by the gas and with other telltale symptoms. "We didn't have any way to treat them," the doctor said.

He told the victims to bathe themselves in a nearby well. As Iraqi military troops advanced on nearby villages with tanks and artillery, the doctor said he fled to the mountains, taking staff and a few wounded villagers with him.

"It was so difficult because we were carrying them and in some cases dragging them because they couldn't see - they were blind," he said.

He said the attacks continued in 1988. At one point, he too developed a rash and began coughing up blood.

The second doctor, who worked at a hospital in the Kurdish north, described similar attacks on the same day in April 1987. Victims included a mother who arrived at the hospital blinded with her 6-year-old son, also unable to see. Another boy, a village cowherd named Shamsa, arrived with a rash and breathing problems, the doctor said. Within 10 days, bubbles covered the boy's skin, and he died.

A defense attorney challenged the doctor's description of the bombs as "chemical weapons," questioning whether the symptoms he saw were related to other diseases.

The witness agreed that red eyes are a common symptom, but said the victims' combination of symptoms was unique, and the chief judge agreed.

Prosecutors believe 180,000 Kurds died during the Anfal campaign. Last week, an American forensic archaeologist, Michael K. Trimble, presented evidence from 17 mass graves. Nearly 80 percent of the remains belonged to women and children, and 90 percent of the children were age 13 and under. The evidence showed men were separated from women and children before they were sent into the grave sites, some forced to squat while awaiting gunshots to the backs of their heads.

Hussein and six co-defendants have pleaded not guilty in the Anfal case.

The deposed president and two co-defendants were sentenced to death Nov. 5 for crimes against humanity related to the executions in Dujail, carried out after locals attempted to assassinate Hussein in 1982.

Although lawyers filed an appeal of Hussein's death sentence with the Iraqi High Tribunal on Sunday, he could still be executed next month.

Yesterday, some of Hussein's current co-defendants denied responsibility for the Anfal campaign. Hussein Rashid Mohammed, former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi Armed Forces, said the killings described yesterday took place before he came to power and that the court is defining the campaign's timeline too broadly.

Those charged should not bear responsibility for murders they did not commit, Mohammed said, repeating a common Iraqi saying, "We don't want to tend another person's fire."

After a little over an hour of testimony, the chief judge adjourned the case for two weeks. When court is reconvened, documents related to the Anfal campaign will be considered, U.S. officials said.

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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