Saddam trial adjourns as defense buys time
Won a 40-day reprieve to hone his defense
BAGHDAD – Saddam Hussein won a 40-day reprieve to hone his defense after pleading not guilty to crimes against humanity on the first day of a televised trial that gripped the nation.
«Once I had six sons; Saddam snatched them from me,» said Fakhriya Issa Moussa, 78, a Shi’ite woman in the northern city of Kirkuk. «What I want is to kill those who killed my sons.»
Saddam’s lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaymi, said the defense needed another three months to prepare.
«It is necessary to have international lawyers for such a sensitive and huge case … because the case is much bigger than Iraqi lawyers’ capability,» he told Al Jazeera television.
Sixty years to the week since Nazi leaders were indicted at Nuremberg, some see the trial bringing closure for victims and allowing others to accept Iraq’s unhappy past.
Thursday’s newspapers will be full of it. Al-Sabah said it was devoting its first three pages to the trial and will give over its back page to photographs of Saddam and his seven co-accused, all of whom declared their innocence in court.
At least one international legal watchdog welcomed the adjournment to November 28 by Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin as a sign of fairness to a defense that complained it had insufficient time to prepare for a case centring on the killing of 148 Shi’ite Muslim men after a failed assassination attempt in 1982.
The judge, an ethnic Kurd who has risked revenge attacks by appearing on television to try Saddam, said the court needed time to persuade witnesses who were «scared» to testify.
With Iraq deeply divided along sectarian and ethnic lines since U.S. troops ousted Saddam in 2003, some have questioned the nation’s ability to mount a fair trial. The government’s sponsors in Washington see the process as showpiece of their efforts to install a credible, democratic system in Iraq.
Saddam himself insisted he was still head of state and demanded of the judge «Who are you?.» He dismissed the court as the product of an illegal invasion which he would not recognize.
«Aggression is illegitimate and what is built on illegitimacy is illegitimate,» he told the presiding judge.
After the eight Baath party men were read the charges and told the penalty could be death by hanging, the 68-year-old joined his aging comrades in replying «Not guilty.»
The London lawyer coordinating his defense, Abdel al Haq al -Ani, dismissed the process as farce: «The Americans are intent on making this pure theater, a show trial.»
Saddam’s plea came despite his earlier refusal to recognize the court.
The Iraqi parliament also brought into effect a law that may reduce the scope for the defense to reject its legitimacy on the grounds of being a product of occupation.
The International Center for Transitional Justice, which offers help to countries dealing with past abuses, said it was encouraged by the performance of the court under Judge Amin, whose coolness and occasional smiles seemed to calm tempers.
«The tribunal judges’ professional treatment of the defense counsel … was encouraging and the decision to adjourn is a significant step in the right direction,» the ICTJ said.
Many Iraqis, notably among the Shi’ite Muslim majority and ethnic Kurds, see the trial bringing justice after three decades of oppression. Millions want Saddam hanged, and quickly.
But in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, still a focus for militants among the once dominant Sunni Arab minority, dozens of youths marched through the streets in protest at the trial.
«The trial is unfair,» said student Dawud Farham, 18. «They should put on trial those who are tearing apart Iraq.»
The United States, which drew up the original statutes of the special tribunal trying Iraq’s ousted leadership, hailed the start of the first of what could be several trials, linking it with a new constitution voted on in a referendum five days ago.
«Like the constitutional referendum … the trials that begin today … will help pave the path to a democratic and independent Iraq,» U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said.
The referendum appears to have passed the constitution, despite a strong Sunni Arab turnout that, according to local officials, may have produced big «No» votes in two of Iraq’s 18 provinces — one short of an effective veto.
Counting and auditing of results, some of which showed huge percentages for or against depending on the region, was still going on in Baghdad’s Green Zone government compound, not far from the former Baath party building where Saddam was on trial.
An official result may be available on Friday or Saturday, said Adel al-Lamy of the Electoral Commission.