Prague, 19 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Hussein struck a defiant note as he went on trial in one of his own former presidential palaces in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
Hussein told the judge that he does not recognize the court’s authority and that he remains president of Iraq.
"I am not answering to the so-called court here, with all my respect to each of you individually," Hussein said. "I reserve my legal right as president of the state of Iraq."
However, Hussein and his seven co-defendants entered formal pleas of "not guilty” before the trial adjourned until 28 November to prepare for the trial.
The decision was made by Kurdish Judge Rizkar Mohammed Amin following a request by Hussein's Iraqi lawyer for a three-month delay.
Defense attorneys argued that they had not had sufficient prior contact with the court before today's trial date to become familiar with the charges against their clients.
The former Iraqi leader, who ruled his country by mercilessly eliminating rivals and keeping a tight rein on the public, is charged with crimes against humanity and could be hanged if found guilty.
Hussein faces 19 charges related to the reprisal killings of 143 men and boys from the village of Al-Dujayl
north of Baghdad after Hussein escaped an assassination attempt there in 1982.
Prosecutors described some of Hussein’s alleged actions in detail to the court as they laid out parts of the evidence against him.
“As a result of these horrific actions, the head of intelligence, who admired the results, asked the defendant Saddam to promote a group of people belonging to Intelligence for their criminal actions in Al-Dujayl," said a prosecutor. "He included his request in a written letter to the defendant Saddam Hussain on 21 July 1982, 13 days after the Al-Dujayl incident. And the defendant Saddam wrote the words 'I agree' in the margin of the original letter."
Hussein’s legal team immediately went on the offensive. It said earlier its strategy will also include challenging the court’s authority to try the former Iraqi president by arguing the court is operating under laws imposed on Iraq as part of the U.S. occupation of the country.
Prior to today’s session, the prosecution said it has compiled a strong case against Hussein and predicted the full trial should take just weeks.
But Hussein’s legal team immediately went on the offensive. It said earlier its strategy will also include challenging the court’s authority to try the former Iraqi president by arguing the court is operating under laws imposed on Iraq as part of the U.S. occupation of the country.
The trial centers not only on the alleged killing of 143 people from Al-Dujayl, but also on the alleged banishment of another 1,500 townspeople to desert prisons. There, families were kept in crowded, windowless cells for years.
One woman, Zaynab Adnan, said she is a survivor of the reprisals. She recently described conditions in the desert prison to Radio Free Iraq (RFI).
“I was born in prison," Adnan said. "My mother told me that we were acquitted for some time and then imprisoned again. When we were staying in the prison, it was just desert around. There was absolutely nothing. I do not know how animals live there, maybe they survive on some ground water. I do not know how were living there.”
Prosecutors said earlier that they will concentrate on just the Al-Dujayl case in an effort to get Hussein convicted and sentenced as quickly as possible.
But they said they also have sufficient evidence to try him in connection with a least 11 other alleged instances of war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Those other instances include the gassing of Kurds in Halabja in the late 1980s, and the suppression of the Shi'ite rebellion in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.
Some human rights groups have raised concerns over whether Saddam Hussein can get a fair trial in Iraq, where public opinion is sharply divided over the former leader.
Saddam is hated by many within the Shi’a and Kurd communities, which were repressed by Hussein’s regime and targeted in crackdowns. But feelings are mixed within the Sunni Arab community, which formed the base of Hussein's power.
On 17 October, the New York-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch expressed concern
over the Iraqi court’s “capacity to conduct trials that are fair and perceived among the Iraqi population to be fair.”
The criticism also voiced warnings by other groups, including Amnesty International, that Hussein’s defense team has not had sufficient time to prepare for the trial.
But Iraqi officials say the judges are independent and insulated from political pressure.
Radio Free Iraq’s correspondent in Baghdad, Moayed al-Haidari, said security for the trial was extremely tight.
He said that even the few reporters admitted to the courtroom were not allowed to take anything inside, including tape recorders, laptop computers, and other equipment.
Portions of the trial were broadcast on television with a 30-minute delay.