Saddam's trial delayed again after limp opening gambits

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The Independent Online

Forty days after Saddam and his seven fellow defendants first appeared in court, the case was adjourned again until next Monday. It is unlikely to go ahead even then - the US authorities and their Iraqi government allies have already said it will be too incendiary to have the hearings close to the national elections on 15 December.

The latest break in the trial was due to the violence which had permeated this case. This time it was to find replacements for two defence lawyers who had been murdered, and another who had fled the country after being shot and wounded.

Seven people associated with the case have been killed so far. The chief investigative judge, Raad Juhi, survivor of an apparent assassination plot over the weekend, sat in court looking pale and tense.

An hour before proceedings began a mortar landed in the Green Zone, where officials and the Iraqi government live and work, and where the trial is being held. Two Iraqi journalists on their way to the court were abducted and reported to have been killed.

Saddam, wearing a grey pinstripe suit jacket, black trousers and a white open necked shirt, was the last of the eight defendants to enter the court, after a six minute delay.

He was handcuffed and led by an American guard to the steps of the court where he was unshackled.

Saddam, decried by his Islamist opponents while in power for his supposed secularly apostasy, clutched a Koran and led fellow defendants in prayer.

Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin asked Saddam to explain his lateness. Saddam said: "They brought me here to the door in handcuffs. They cannot bring defendants in handcuffs. The Koran was in my hand and at the same time the handcuffs were on my hands. A defendant should be under the supervision of the court.

"At the same time the elevator was out of order. I had to walk up four flights of stairs." The judge said: "I will tell the police about this."

Saddam shouted back: "You are the chief judge. I don't want you to tell them, I want you to order them. They are in our country. You are the one who has the sovereignty. You are Iraqi and they are the foreigners and occupiers. They are the invaders. How can one defend himself if his pen is taken. Saddam Hussein's pen and papers were taken. I don't mean plain paper. There are papers downstairs about my case. My opinions, they are not here."

The judge struggled to impose his authority on the court. He chided people for not standing when the judges' panel entered the courtroom. "When the court is called into session, everyone must show respect to the court by standing", he said.

But people failed to rise the next time as well. The defendants were enjoying this. "Where is this respect?" one asked mockingly.

After a moment of silence in memory of the two dead lawyers, the evidence against the man the US and British want to portray as a tyrant equal to Hitler and Pol Pot, was somewhat desultory and probably would not have been allowed in a British court of law.

There was grainy footage from the Shia town of Dujail where 140 people were killed in alleged retribution for an ambush on Saddam's convoy. Saddam is heard saying "separate them off and investigate them" about a group of prisoners.

The question asked by Iraqi observers was what exactly did the words prove? Could they not have found something harder for the opening day against a man who so brutally oppressed his people?

The defendants appear to feel the same way, Barzan al-Tikriti, one Saddam's younger brothers muttered "Is that a crime? The president said, put them one by one."

There was then the testimony of Wadan Ismail Al Sheikh, the first witness to provide, the prosecution claims, "crucial testimony". He said more than 400 people from Dujail, including whole families, were taken to Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. One of the defendants, former vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan, had headed a committee which had ordered the destruction of Dujail's orchards, the livelihood of the people, from where gunman fired on Saddam's convoy.

Mr Sheikh's only "evidence" against Saddam was that he had decorated officers who took part in the operation. But, like so many in this case, Mr Sheikh is dead. He gave his testimony hunched in a wheelchair, on a video screen. Defence lawyers had not questioned him before he died of cancer.

After the end of the session, Saddam, apparently in jovial terms with his Iraqi guards said "Saddam is not a lion anymore. So do not be afraid of him."

Speaking to a fellow defendant, Awad Bandar, Saddam said he was offered family visits but refused. They would cry, he said, if they saw him in his current state.

"I walk through four iron gates to get to the area where I can take my morning walk", he said. "It is maybe nine metres long. There is an eye on me 24 hours a day." They talked about a female judge. "This new woman is good, she is nice", said Saddam. "But it is hard for a woman to be a judge."

As Saddam was being taken away he was talking about his destiny. The translators could only hear a few words. Two of them were "Mussolini" and "Bonaparte".