Downcast but defiant, Saddam faces justice

A defiant Saddam Hussein made his first appearance in court today and condemned the hearing as "theatre".

A defiant Saddam Hussein made his first appearance in court today and condemned the hearing as "theatre".

When asked to identify himself, the toppled tyrant declared: "I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq."

He added: "This is all theatre, the real criminal is Bush."

Saddam, who ruled his nation with an iron fist for 24 years, refused to sign legal documents and defended his 1990 invasion of neighbouring Kuwait.

He was taken in handcuffs and chains to the courtroom, located in a former palace near Baghdad airport.

He was flown to the area by helicopter, according to reports, then driven to the building amid tight security in an armoured bus escorted by four heavily armed miliary Humvees and an ambulance.

He was then escorted into the building by two Iraqi prison guards and ushered through a door guarded by six Iraqi policemen.

During the brief hearing, the former dictator was in turns downcast and defiant.

He reportedly described the Kuwaitis as "dogs".

He insisted he was still president so he could not be tried.

He questioned the jurisdiction of the court and claimed he invaded Kuwait "for the Iraqi people".

During one of his outbursts he was reprimanded by the presiding judge.

The hearing gave Saddam his first chance to speak in public since his capture by US forces seven months ago.

The legal process, which may last for years, could eventually end with the execution of Saddam and his henchmen.

Seven preliminary charges were put to the 67–year–old, whose chains were removed for his court appearance.

Also due in court were 11 of his cohorts including former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, the regime's best known spokesman in the West, Ali Hasan al–Majid, known as Chemical Ali, and former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan.

Speaking before the hearing, Salem Chalabi, the director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal dealing with case, said Saddam and his lieutenants were not being asked to respond to specific charges today.

He faced a single judge, who has not been identified for fear he may face attack from Saddam loyalists.

"Basically it's an arraignment," Mr Chalabi said. "An indictment has not been issued. There isn't always an indictment first."

Criminal charges stemming from Saddam's brutal regime were outlined before the judge.

Mr Chalabi said Saddam and his lieutenants were in good health.

"He looks fine, he's seen by a doctor on a daily basis and looks fine, he's thinner and his hair is a bit wavy but otherwise, he's OK."

A formal indictment with specific charges is expected later. The trial is not expected until 2005.

"The next legal step would be that the investigations start proper with investigative judges and investigators beginning the process of gathering evidence," Mr Chalabi said.

"Down the line, there will be an indictment, if there is enough evidence – obviously, and a time table starts with respect to a trial date."

Iraqi President Ghazi al–Yawer has said that his country's new government has decided to reinstate the death penalty, suspended during the US occupation that ended this week.

One member of Saddam's legal team, Tim Hughes, said that they would be arguing that he could not receive a fair trial in Iraq.

Mr Hughes told BBC News 24: "This will be nothing more than a show trial, for the purposes of the American and British coalition.

"All of the evidence is likely to be politically motivated.

"The answer is no, he will not get a fair trial. We will be arguing very strongly that he should not be put on trial in Iraq."

Mr Hughes said the legal team would also contest the legitimacy of the manner in which Saddam was overthrown. If Saddam was still the legitimate president of the country, then his presidency would confer on him immunity from prosecution, said Mr Hughes.

Yesterday, Saddam and his colleagues were transferred to Iraqi legal – but not custodial – control, a formality which means that they are no longer prisoners of war and subject to rights under the Geneva Conventions, but criminal defendants whose treatment will be in accordance with Iraqi law.

Saddam will remain in an American–controlled jail guarded by Americans until the Iraqis are ready to take physical custody of him. That is expected to take a long time.

Already there are pre–trial negotiations over permitting Saddam's foreign legal team to work in Iraq, whether to televise the proceedings live and the possible reinstatement of capital punishment.

The European Court of Human Rights yesterday rejected an urgent appeal to stop Britain from taking part in Saddam's transfer.

A fast–track appeal was filed with the court, based in Strasbourg, by Saddam's US lawyer Curtis Doebbler.

The lawyers said their client should not be transferred "unless and until the Iraqi interim government has provided adequate assurances that the applicant will not be subject to the death penalty".

They argued that as signatory to the court's Convention on Human Rights, Britain was obliged to ensure people under their control – which they said included Saddam – were not subject to torture, degrading treatment or the death penalty.

But the court ruled that the lawyers had failed to establish "the reality and imminent threat of harm".

British ministers signalled that the Government is prepared to back tough action by Iraq's interim administration against both its former rulers, and the insurgents seeking to destabilise the country.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that while Britain in principle opposes the use of the death penalty, it was a matter for the Iraqi authorities to determine whether it might be applied to Saddam Hussein and his colleagues.

Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Commons Britain and the US were determined to help the new Iraqi authorities to defeat those "killing as many innocent people as they can, trying to destroy oil and power supplies and create chaos".

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