Turmoil after Saddam ordered to leave courtroom

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Saddam Hussein's lawyers walked out of his trial hearing today to protest against the changing of the chief judge and the deposed leader was ordered to leave the courtroom.

Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa, a Shiite Muslim Arab, was presiding today in place of Abdullah al-Amiri, who was removed after he was accused of being too soft on the former Iraqi leader.

But when the session began with al-Khalifa in charge, the defence lawyers questioned the impartiality of the trial.

"We don't expect from this court established under the occupation authorities to be fair, so we decided to withdraw from this trial," defence lawyer Wadoud Fawzi told the court, reading a statement on behalf of the defence team.

"The decision to sack the judge at the orders of the government shows that this trial lacks the standards of a fair trial," added Fawzi.

Al-Khalifa responded, saying replacing the chief judge was an "administrative matter." When the lawyers protested, the judge said the court would appoint new counsel.

Saddam said he wanted his lawyers to stay and protested against court-appointed counsel. "This is our personal right," Saddam shouted about the defence choosing its counsel as he pointed his finger at the judge and pounded his fist on the podium.

"You must deal with us as the law dictates," he said.

Al-Khalifa asked him to stop talking, but Saddam refused, prompting the judge to order him out of the courtroom.

A fiery exchange ensued.

The deposed leader told the judge: "Your father was in the security and he went on working as a sergeant in the security (forces) until the fall of Baghdad" - a reference to the 2003 US-led war that toppled Saddam's regime.

"I challenge you in front of the public if this is the case," al-Khalifa shouted in response to Saddam's claim.

Saddam's cousin "Chemical" Ali al-Majid told al-Khalifa that he also rejected court-appointed lawyers. "I'll stay (in the courtroom), but I'll decline to say anything or defend myself and I'll gladly accept any verdict, even if it's the death penalty."

The judge then resumed the session, calling in an elderly Kurdish witness to take the stand.

The Iraqi High Tribunal, the country's supreme court, had asked for al-Amiri, the chief judge, to be replaced in a letter to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who approved it yesterday, according to an Iraqi government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Hussein al-Duri, an aide to al-Maliki, said one reason for al-Amiri's replacement was the judge's comments last week in a court session, in which he told Saddam, "You were not a dictator."

"The head of the court is requested to run and control the session, and he is not allowed to violate judicial regulations, " al-Duri told Al-Arabiya television. "It is not allowed for the judge to express his opinion."

Al-Amiri's comment angered many Kurds and Shiites, fueling their criticism that he was too lenient with Saddam. Prosecutors in the trial had already asked for al-Amiri to be replaced after he allowed Saddam to lash out at Kurdish witnesses during a court session.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was "very concerned" about al-Amiri's removal. "This appears to be improper interference in the independence of the tribunal, and may greatly damage the court," the non-governmental organisation said in a statement signed by Richard Dicker, the director of its International Justice Program.

The statement asserted that the statute of the Iraqi High Tribunal trying Saddam and six co-defendants ensures the independence of the court. The tribunal's presidency, however, can - under a recommendation from the government - remove a judge from a trial.

The Cabinet's action "is a clear and damaging violation of the judicial independence of the Iraqi High Tribunal," it added.