BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein (search) pleaded not guilty to charges of premeditated murder and torture during the first day of his trial at which he got into a shoving match with guards, refused to state his name and challenged the legitimacy of the court.
Saddam is being tried along with seven former members of his regime on charges of murder and torture relating to the 1982 massacre of nearly 150 Shiites in the town of Dujail (search), which came after a failed attempt on the ex-dictator's life.
The first session of the trial lasted three hours.
The chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, outlined the case against the men, and presiding Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin (search) read the defendants their rights and the charges against them.
Amin asked each for their plea, starting with the ousted dictator, saying, "Mr. Saddam, go ahead. Are you guilty or innocent?"
Saddam — holding a copy of the Koran he brought with him into the session and held throughout — replied quietly, "I said what I said. I am not guilty," referring to his arguments earlier in the session.
Amin told them they could face execution if convicted.
A confrontation broke out during a break in the trial, after Saddam stood, smiling, and asked to step out of the room. When two guards tried to grab his arms to escort him out, he angrily shook them off.
They tried to grab him again, and Saddam struggled to free himself. Saddam and the guards shoved each other and yelled for about a minute.
It ended with Saddam walking independently, with the two guards behind him, out of the room for the break.
In outlining the case, al-Mousawi said Saddam was closely involved in planning retaliation after an assassination attempt against him as he drove through Dujail in July 1982. Al-Mousawi said the prosecution had videos of Saddam interrogating four Dujail residents soon after his motorcade was fired on.
Saddam countered that videotapes should not be admissible as evidence because they could be altered or faked. The judge did not respond.
Prosecutors have said they brought the Dujail case against Saddam first because they had more solid evidence, including documents and videos.
Saddam's lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, responded by asking for the names of witnesses who will testify for the prosecution — names that have been kept strictly secret to prevent reprisals against them. Amid said al-Dulaimi could ask the prosecutors for the names but did not say if he would order them handed over.
Toward the end of the trial, Saddam asked for a yellow notepad, on which he took notes.
Al-Dulaimi then asked for an adjournment of between 45 and 90 days. The judge agreed and the next court date was set for Nov. 28.
At the start, the 68-year-old ousted Iraqi leader — looking thin in a dark gray suit and open-collared shirt — stood and asked the presiding judge: "Who are you? I want to know who you are."
"I do not respond to this so-called court, with all due respect to its people, and I retain my constitutional right as the president of Iraq," he said, brushing off the judge's attempts to interrupt him.
"Neither do I recognize the body that has designated and authorized you, nor the aggression because all that has been built on false basis is false."
Amin, a Kurd, asked Saddam to formally identify himself but he refused and finally sat. Amin read his name for him, calling him the "former president of Iraq," bringing a protest from Saddam, who insisted he was still in the post.
Saddam and his fellow defendants were ushered into the courtroom to their places directly in front of the panel of judges. They were seated in three rows inside a pen made of neck-high white iron slats.
The panel of five judges will hear the case and render a verdict in what could be the first of several trials over atrocities carried out during Saddam's 23-year-rule.
The main charges include the invasion of Kuwait (search), which resulted in the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent violent suppression of mass uprisings in northern and southern Iraq; crimes against humanity such as the destruction of the southern marshlands and the forced deportation of thousands of Fayli Kurds to Iran; and the genocidal chemical weapons attack on Iraqi Kurds in 1988, during which more than 5,000 were killed and thousands more injured, making it the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian population.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (search) told FOX he has no doubt about Saddam.
"I think Saddam Hussein [is] a war criminal," he said.
And Iraq's first minister of human rights after Saddam's regime fell, Bakhtier Amin, agreed.
"Saddam Hussein himself was a weapon of mass destruction," he said.
The defendants sat in three rows of black chairs, with Saddam in the first row, partitioned behind a low white metal barrier, in the center of the court directly in front of the judge's bench.
Starting the session, Judge Amin called the defendants into the room one by one. Saddam was the last to enter, escorted by two Iraqi guards in bulletproof vests who guided him by the elbow. He glanced at journalists watching through bulletproof glass from an adjoining room. He motioned for his escorts to slow down a little.
After sitting, he greeted his co-defendants, saying "Peace be upon you," sitting next to co-defendant Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court.
The other defendants include Saddam's former intelligence chief Barazan Ibrahim, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan and other lower-level Baathist civil servants. Most were wearing traditional Arab robes and they complained that they were not allowed to have headdresses, so court officials brought out red headdresses for them. Many Sunni Arabs consider it shameful to appear in public without the checkered scarf, tied by a cord around the forehead.
Ramadan also refused to identify himself to the judge. "I repeat what President Saddam Hussein has said," he added. The other defendants stood one by one and stated their names.
The trial is taking place in the marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of his feared Baath Party. The building in Baghdad's Green Zone — the heavily fortified district where Iraq's government, parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located — was ringed with 10-foot blast walls and U.S. and Iraqi troops, with several Humvees and at least one tank deployed outside. U.S. soldiers led sniffer dogs around the grounds, looking for explosives.
The identities of judges had been a tightly held secret to ensure their safety, though Amin's name was revealed just before the trial began. The courtroom camera repeatedly focused on him.
The trial was aired with around a 20-minute delay on state-run Iraqi television and on satellite stations across Iraq and the Arab world, though it cut out occasionally and sound quality was often poor.
Many Iraqis gathered around TV sets to watch.
"Since the fall of the regime, we have been waiting for this trial," said Aqeel al-Ubaidi, a Dujail resident. "The trial won't bring back those who died, but at least it will help put out the fire and anger inside us."
Salman Zaboun Shanan, a Shiite construction worker, sat with his family at home in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah, having taken the day off from work to watch the trial. When Saddam appeared on television, Shanan's wife Sabiha Hassan spit.
"I hope he is executed and that anyone who suffered can take a piece of his flesh," said Shanan, who was imprisoned during Saddam's rule, as was Sabiha and several of their sons.
But across the Tigris River in the mainly Sunni Arab district of Azamiyah, some were embittered over the trial of Saddam, whose regime was dominated by Sunni Arabs who have now lost their power.
"Saddam is the lesser of evils," said Sahab Awad Maaruf, an engineer, comparing Saddam to the current Shiite-Kurdish led government. "He's the only legitimate leader for Iraqis."
In particular, the Shiite Muslim majority and the Kurdish minority — the two communities most oppressed by Saddam's regime — have eagerly awaited the chance to see the man who ruled Iraq with unquestioned and total power held to justice.
And neighboring Iran, which fought a 1980-88 war with Iraq, welcomed the trial's start but said Saddam should be charged with invading Iran.
The world will be watching Saddam's trial to see whether Iraq's new Shiite and Kurdish leaders can rise above politics and prejudice and give the former dictator a fair hearing. Human rights groups have criticized the government for trying to influence the trial and that considerable U.S. logistical and financial aid to the tribunal could lend credibility to charges that it will mete out "victors' justice."
White House Response
The court is also operating not only under its own rules — laid out when the court was created in 2003 while Iraq was still run by American administrators — but also by a 1971 Saddam-era criminal law that some have criticized as not up to international standards.
That law says the judges can issue a guilty verdict if they are "satisfied" by the evidence — seen as lower standard of proof than "convinced beyond a reasonable doubt."
At the White House, President Bush did not watch any of the televised trial proceedings but was updated during his morning national security briefing, spokesman Scott McClellan said. The trial is "a symbol of the rule of law returning to Iraq," McClellan said.
McClellan rejected complaints by Human Rights Watch that the trial doesn't meet international standards and said the tribunal is based on international models and that the judges "received extensive training from experts in a number of countries," including the United Kingdom and Italy. "They've put in place the basic standards you'd expect of international law."
And spokesman Frederick Jones said the trial went “as expected. It's an Iraqi-led process, and it's a heartening symbol that the rule of law is returning to Iraq."
Weighing in on the trial and what it means to Americans and Iraqis, Vice President Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne Cheney, told FOX News: "It’s a demonstration that brutality can be met with the rule of law. That’s been the bedrock of American civilization."
FOX News contributor Dan Senor said Wednesday morning a Bush administration official said “there would be no witnesses coming in today.”
Senor is a former top aide to Ambassador Paul Bremer, who led the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He added that there is an “obligation to do everything we can to provide security for these people”
As for what this means for the insurgency, Senor said militants would “capitalize off the trial to try and gain momentum for the insurgency.”
In an interview at his Green Zone offices prior to the trial, Chief Investigative Judge Raid Juhi told FOX News: "We want to show to the world that Iraq does have a solid legal system, and it is independent."
Al-Dulaimi on Tuesday said he was seeking a three-month adjournment for more time to prepare Saddam's defense and arrange for Arab and Western lawyers to join him in the defense team; the trial was adjourned on Wednesday until Nov. 28 amid reports the adjournment was a result of some witnesses not showing up.
Al-Dulaimi was expected to challenge the special tribunal's competence to try the case, arguing that Saddam remains the legitimate president and the court is illegal because it was created under U.S. occupation.
Saddam was ousted as part of the U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom. U.S. troops entered Iraq in March 2003, after which Saddam fled the capital and was on the run for nearly eight months until American forces found in him hiding in a cellar in a rural area outside his hometown of Tikrit north of Baghdad on Dec. 13, 2003.
He has been held since in a U.S. detention facility at Baghdad International Airport.
Prosecutors are preparing other cases to bring to trial against Saddam and his officials — including for the Anfal Operation, a military crackdown on the Kurds in the late 1980s that killed some 180,000 people; the suppression of Kurdish and Shiite revolts in 1991; and the deaths of 5,000 Kurds in a 1988 poison gas attack on the village of Halabja.
If a death sentence is issued in the Dujail case, it is unclear whether it would be carried out regardless of whether Saddam is involved in other trials. He can appeal a Dujail verdict, but if a conviction and sentence are upheld, the sentence must be carried out within 30 days. A stay could be granted to allow other trials to proceed.