Defiant Saddam Hussein Pleads Not Guilty, Slams Court

Former Iraqi president's trial was adjourned until November 28.

In a far cry from the haggard, heavily bearded fugitive who was pulled out of a "spider hole" more than two years ago and shown meekly complying with doctors probing his mouth, a defiant Saddam Hussein stood up in court on Wednesday (October 19) and strongly proclaimed his innocence.

In his first appearance before the court that will try him along with seven co-defendants on charges of torture and murder in the 1982 massacre of 143 men and boys in the Shiite town of Dujail (see "Saddam Hussein's Crimes Against Humanity Trial Begins; Lawyers Seek Delay"), Hussein attempted to give a prepared speech and refused to identify himself.

Presiding Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin read the defendants their rights and a list of charges against them, which also include forced expulsions, failure to comply with international law and illegal imprisonment. Walking to the podium with a large, hardcover copy of the Koran, Hussein began by reading a passage from the book. "By the name of God," he said, before the judge interrupted and asked Saddam to give his name. Hussein refused and began a rebuke of the court, including a dig at having to wait several hours for the day's proceedings to begin.

The judge asked the 68-year-old Hussein, "Mr. Saddam, go ahead. Are you guilty or innocent?"

Hussein replied, "I said what I said. I am not guilty."

"And I reserve my constitutional right as president of the country of Iraq, so, please, you have time," continued Hussein, seated alongside his co-defendants in a white, cagelike area in the middle of the room. "This is not the time. ... You ask for my ID, but this is a formality of the court. Therefore, I don't acknowledge the entity that authorized you nor the aggression, because everything that's based on falsehood is falsehood."

Hussein told Amin at the start of the three-hour proceeding that he maintained his position as the "constitutional president of Iraq. ... And I have the right to remain silent about my identity. You know me. You know who I am but I do not recognize your authority. I did not hire you."

The former president then engaged Amin in a 10-minute argument in which the judge told Hussein that he would have his chance to speak.

"The Iraqi people chose me. I don't answer to this so-called court," Hussein said. "I don't recognize you." Amin then read Hussein's full name, date of birth and referred to him as the former president of Iraq, a reference that irked Hussein.

"Excuse me, I did not say formerly president," said Hussein "I said I am the president."

"You say what you say," Amin replied.

The highly anticipated trial was closely watched by Iraqis across the country, who, like the rest of the world, viewed the proceedings on a 20-minute delay. The trial is taking place in a heavily fortified and retrofitted building that was formerly the headquarters of Hussein's Baath Party. Despite starting two hours late and encountering problems with the audio feed that muted his answers in the courtroom, it was clear that Hussein was not willing to back down.

Neither was fellow defendant Awad Bandar, who complained that the court had blocked him from wearing his traditional Arab headdress, an agal, in the courtroom. Amin called for a break to allow Bandar and three others to doff their agals and then the proceedings continued. Unlike Hussein, the other defendants agreed to identify themselves and entered pleas of not guilty to the charges when asked.

The chief prosecutor of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, Jaffar Mussawi, laid out the events that led to the charges in a 30-minute presentation, explaining how the 143 victims in Dujail were executed after a botched assassination attempt on Hussein in the town. The defendant's lawyers objected to Mussawi's statement, complaining that he was mixing in other alleged crimes with those committed in Dujail. After the second objection, Mussawi flipped through a few pages of his notes and said, "Fine, I'll only concentrate on Dujail."

It was one of several strange moments in the proceeding, which included one of the defendants firing his lawyer.

Among the other defendants are Hussein's half brother and former intelligence chief, Barzan Ibrahim al-Hassan, ex-Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, former Deputy Cabinet Chief Awad Ahmad al-Bandar and four former officials who were responsible for the Dujail area at the time of the massacre.

At one point, Hussein, dressed in a dark gray suit with a white shirt that was open at the neck, got into a scuffle with guards who were trying to escort him out during a break. When Hussein stood up and asked to leave the courtroom for a few minutes, he testily shook off the guards when they tried to grab his arms to lead him out. When they tried to grab him again, Hussein struggled to break free, setting off a minute-long shoving match. Hussein got his way and walked out of the room with the two guards following behind him.

Hussein and his co-defendants could face the death penalty if convicted of the charges. Three of the five judges must agree on a verdict, and in an ironic twist, current Iraqi laws call for the country's president to approve executions.

At the end of the proceedings, the judge ordered an adjournment until November 28, mainly because many witnesses were too afraid to come to court despite protective curtains around the witness box, according to a Reuters report. Amin said 30 to 40 witnesses had failed to come to Baghdad for the trial. Hussein's lead lawyer, Khalil al-Duleimi, also requested a delay to study testimonies.

Lawyers for Hussein had been pushing for a dismissal or delay, citing their belief that the tribunal is illegitimate under the Geneva Convention and that it may not be impartial because it was funded by the United States.