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Iraq: Hussein, Co-Defendants Plead Not Guilty In Chaotic First Day Of Trial

Saddam Hussein in court on 19 October (AFP) The Iraqi Special Tribunal convened on 19 October to try former dictator Saddam Hussein and seven other defendants for crimes against humanity related to the killing of 146 Iraqis and the arrest and deportation of 1,500 more following a failed assassination attempt against Hussein in the town of Al-Dujayl in 1982. By day's end, the court decided to adjourn until 28 November in order to accommodate defense attorneys who claimed they needed more time to prepare their defense.

Judge Ra'id al-Juhi told reporters at a 19 October press briefing that prosecutors also needed time to prepare witnesses for the trial, raising speculation that some witnesses may be unwilling to appear in court in front of Hussein and the other defendants. Al-Juhi said that Iraqi law allows for the judges to interview witnesses in their homes in order to accommodate such issues. Judge Rizgar Muhammad Amin later told Reuters that 30-40 witnesses failed to show up. "They were too scared to be public witnesses," he said.

To observers, the delay can only aid the prosecution and the tribunal judges, who appeared at times flustered as Hussein and other defendants disrupted the courtroom proceedings. Lead Judge Amin was seen on camera smiling nervously and rocking his chair as Hussein challenged the court.

From the moment the proceedings got under way, Hussein was belligerent, refusing to identify himself to Amin. Hussein contended that under the constitution drafted during his tenure, he, as president of Iraq, was immune from prosecution. "You asked for my identification but this is a formality of the court. Therefore, I don't acknowledge either the entity that authorized you nor the aggression because everything that is based on falsehood is false," Hussein said.

Former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan followed suit, refusing to identify himself to the court. The other defendants did identify themselves, but not one described himself as having any link to the Ba'ath Party.

The circus-like atmosphere can only add to the concerns some international observers have with the court's legitimacy and ability to give Hussein a fair trial.

As the proceedings continued, Hussein and the other defendants interjected to challenge remarks by either Amin or the prosecutor. Defense attorney Khalid al-Dulaymi also objected, claiming that references by the prosecutor to the Iran-Iraq war, which was under way at the time of the massacre, were veiled attempts to cloud the proceedings with unrelated issues.

Amin struggled to bring order to the proceedings, and for television viewers, the chaos was compounded by audio/visual technical problems, leaving the impression that those responsible for organizing the proceedings were ill-prepared. The circus-like atmosphere can only add to the concerns some international observers have with the court's legitimacy and ability to give Hussein a fair trial.

Such impressions will have a lasting effect on Sunni Arabs who support the former regime. Hussein supporters have already contended that the deposed leadership won't get a fair trial in Iraq. But ultimately, a poorly run trial is a disservice to all Iraqis, who have waited for this trial for so long.

Hussein and the other defendants pleaded not guilty to charges that included torture, premeditated murder, imprisonment and deprivation of physical movement, and forced deportation. The other seven men on trial are: Awad Hamad Bandar Sa'dun, chief judge of the Revolutionary Court in 1982; Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, then intelligence chief and Hussein's half-brother; former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan; Abdallah Kazim al-Ruwayid; Ali Dayah Ali; Muhammad Azzawi al-Ali; and Mizhar Abdallah al-Ruwayid.

Saddam Hussein In Pictures

Saddam Hussein In Pictures

A slideshow of photographs from Saddam Hussein's years ruling Iraq through his downfall.