Saddam pleads not guilty

Saddam is being tried over atrocities committed during his rule, along with seven of his former cohorts, in a courtroom in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

All could face execution if found guilty.

Facing the first case, relating to a massacre in the Shiite town of Dujail, Saddam refused to answer the court’s questions.

“I said what I said, I am not guilty, I am innocent,” he told the court after the presiding judge read out charges over the 1982 massacre of more than 140 Shiite villagers.

After repeatedly refusing to give his name, Saddam described himself as the “President of Iraq”

“I don’t acknowledge either the entity that authorises you nor the aggression because everything based on falsehood is falsehood,” said Saddam, holding a Koran in his lap.

“Who are you and what are you?” he demanded of presiding judge Rizkar Mohammed Amin.

After several hours that were mainly devoted to procedural matters, the trial was adjourned until November 28.

Saddam’s lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi, who has frequently complained of not having time to prepare a defence, requested a three-month delay.

The other defendants include Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti, Saddam’s half-brother and a former director of the feared Mukhabarat intelligence service, and former vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan, one of the regime’s “enforcers.”

“They are charged with murder, forced expulsion, imprisonment, failure to comply with international law and torture,” the judge told the eight defendants, all of whom pleaded not guilty.

The eight were sitting in steel-barred pens and several followed Saddam’s lead and refused to give their names.

Saddam is likely to face subsequent charges over the gassing of 5,000 people in the Kurdish village of Halabja in March 1988; the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, during which around one million people were killed; the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the violent suppression of a Shiite uprising the following year.

The 1982 Dujail case is being dealt with first because prosecutors believe they have documentation that will directly link Saddam to the massacre.

Trial watched closely

As Iraqis around the country watched the trial on television, villagers in Dujail, including women clutching pictures of slain relatives, waved banners urging “Death for Saddam Hussein”.

“Trial of the Century” trumpeted the headline in Al-Bayan, the mouthpiece of the Shiite Dawa party of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. “Iraqis will finally see their former dictator at the mercy of Iraqi justice.”

But in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, the US army and Iraqi police fired in the air to disperse a protest by armed pro-Saddam demonstrators.

Iran said it welcomed the opening of Saddam’s trial, but called on Iraqi authorities to lay more charges, including the bloody 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad hailed the trial as “another momentous step in the building of a new Iraq” that will “document the evils of the former regime.”

“We hope this trial will help bring some closure for the Iraqi people to their country’s dark past,” added White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Doubts raised

Human Rights Watch, which has documented atrocities committed during Saddam’s regime, has expressed doubts the trial will be fair.

The US-based group said problems with the tribunal and its statute include the lack of a requirement to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, disputes among Iraqi politicians over court control, and a ban on any commutation of death sentences.

While many Iraqis hailed the trial, his supporters rued the sight of their “humiliated hero.”

“If Saddam is executed, then all Arab dictators should be. He was actually the least bad,” said teacher Raed Ihsan in the smart Baghdad neighbourhood of Karrada.

Two mortar bombs landed in the Green Zone shortly before the trial, without causing any casualties.

But despite calls by Saddam’s supporters for attacks there was little violence across the country.

Reporter abducted

Separately Rory Carroll, 33, a journalist with the British newspaper The Guardian, was reportedly abducted in Baghdad.

Local security officials said he was picked up in Sadr City, an impoverished Shiite neighbourhood, whilst covering a story about Iraqis’ reaction to Saddam’s trial.

And a French journalist, who disappeared in March 2003 while covering the US-led invasion of Iraq for Britain’s ITN television, is believed to have been killed in a firefight.

A French foreign ministry statement said Fred Nerac was in an Iraqi vehicle that was caught up in a fight between Iraqis and US forces, but did not say when it was believed to have taken place.

Nephew arrested

Meanwhile Iraqi police arrested Saddam Hussein’s nephew, believed to be the top financier of Iraq’s rampant insurgency, after Syria sent him back to Iraq, senior Iraqi security officials said.

Yasir Sabhawi Ibrahim, son of Saddam’s half brother Sabhawi Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, was arrested in a Baghdad apartment, the Associated Press reported.

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