BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein's trial resumes Monday after a five-week break, with the defense planning to seek a lengthy adjournment in a proceeding threatened by Iraq's ongoing turmoil and tarnished by the assassination of two defense attorneys since the opening session last month.
The first prosecution witnesses are expected to testify before the five-judge panel, offering accounts of the deaths of more than 140 Shiite villagers following an assassination attempt against Saddam in the town of Dujail in 1982.
If convicted Saddam and his seven co-defendants could be sentenced to death by hanging.
However, considerable uncertainty surrounds most details of the trial, including how many days the session will last, how many witnesses will testify and whether their identities will be made public.
Many of the details have not been announced in advance due to security demands for a trial held in the midst of a raging insurgency — much of it led by Saddam supporters.
For example, witnesses have the option of testifying from behind screens to preserve their anonymity. Court officials won't even say how many witnesses are on the prosecution list.
One key witness, former intelligence officer Wadah Ismael al-Sheik, died of cancer after giving a videotaped deposition last month. Depositions are admissible under Iraqi law.
Security concerns prompted the defense team to threaten a boycott of Monday's session after two members were slain in separate attacks after the trial opened Oct. 19. But the lawyers now say they will show up — if for no other reason than to prevent the Iraqi High Tribunal from appointing replacements.
"All the lawyers will attend the trial and a decision has been taken not to leave the president alone," defense lawyer Issam Ghazawi said. "The lawyers are forced to attend the hearings, despite serious threats on their lives, but they want to do that to serve justice."
U.S. and Iraqi officials said they expect the session to last until at least Thursday and then adjourn until after national parliamentary elections set for Dec. 15.
However, attorney Khamees al-Ubaidi told The Associated Press that the defense will ask for a postponement of at least three months to allow time to review the evidence and prepare their case.
"It is not just a delay for delay's sake," al-Ubaidi said. "We need certain clarifications on documents we received, and we have not had enough time to study the case. Some of the documents we requested have not been delivered."
Court officials have said they would be amenable to a reasonable adjournment. But officials have also indicated they want to wrap up the trial as soon as possible. Investigators are preparing up to a dozen other cases against Saddam, including his role in the crackdown on the Kurds in the 1980s and the brutal suppression of a Shiite uprising in the south in 1991.
Al-Ubaidi also said an agreement had been reached "in principle" on security for the defense team and the boycott threat had been withdrawn. Some international legal and human rights organizations have warned that the very legitimacy of the proceedings depends on the government's ability to protect defense attorneys, as well as witnesses, prosecutors and judges.
"The recent murder of two defense lawyers in the trial demonstrates the urgent need to protect those lawyers as well as witnesses," said Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch. "However, all arrangements for witness protection must be consistent with fair trial guarantees."
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the trial will remind the world of the horrific crimes of the Saddam regime at a time when the American public is questioning the war as well as the Bush administration's strategy of building democracy in Iraq.
The Shiite-led government has rejected suggestions that the trial be halted or moved to another country, as demanded by the defense. The United States resisted calls for establishing an international court — the formula used to prosecute war criminals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia — insisting that Saddam should be judged by an Iraqi court on Iraqi soil.
Nevertheless, Iraq's security crisis has forced U.S. and Iraqi authorities to employ measures that make this among the most unusual of trials.
Proceedings are open to the world's media and will be streamed online by Court TV in the United States. Iraqis can watch the trial on the government's television station.
But viewers will see the face of only one of the five trial judges. Identities of the others have been withheld to protect them and their families. The trial is taking place in the Green Zone — the heavily guarded international enclave in the heart of Baghdad where access is restricted to Iraqis and foreigners who have been carefully screened.
Much of the security planning had focused on ways to protect judges, prosecutors and witnesses. That changed after a dozen masked gunmen abducted defense lawyer Saadoun al-Janabi from his Baghdad office the day after the opening session. His body was found the next day with two bullets in his skull.
Nearly three weeks later, defense lawyer Adel al-Zubeidi was assassinated in a brazen daylight ambush in Baghdad. A colleague who was wounded fled the country.
Government spokesman Laith Kubba said defense lawyers repeatedly turned down offers to move into the Green Zone; he accused them of using the security issue as a stalling tactic. The court said replacement lawyers would be appointed if the defense team refused to attend Monday's session so the trial could continue.