BAGHDAD, Iraq – The new chief judge in Saddam Hussein's trial brought a tough new style to the court Sunday, tossing out those he considered unruly and admonishing one protesting defendant: You think courts were better under Saddam?
It's a far cry from the style of Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman's predecessor, a fellow Kurd who addressed Saddam and his seven co-defendants with the Arabic honorific "sayed" — or "sir" — and tolerated the outbursts of Saddam and his more belligerent half brother and former intelligence chief, Barzan Ibrahim.
In the trial's opening minutes, Abdel-Rahman told one defense lawyer, "I am speaking to you in clear and straight forward Arabic: Don't interrupt me."
Soon afterward, the lawyer, Jordanian Salih al-Armouti, was taken out of the court for shouting at the judge. "Can you do this in your own courts in your country?" Abdel-Rahman asked him.
Even the new judge's appearance — bald and clean-shaven — was a contrast to his predecessor, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, whose silver hair and mustache gave him a grandfatherly look.
Abdel-Rahman's new style plunged the court into chaos soon after the session opened. After a half hour of shouting, obscenities and even a scuffle, half the case's eight defendants and the entire defense team were gone — either thrown out or walking out in protest.
Undaunted, Abdel-Rahman appointed new defense lawyers and sat back to listen to the testimony of three prosecution witnesses.
The four remaining defendants sat mostly quiet for the remainder of the trial. When they objected to parts of the testimony, Abdel-Rahman allowed them to speak, but made them keep it short.
Abdel-Rahman's wish to stamp his authority on the court never let up.
He dismissed one witness with an abrupt "Go, may Allah be with you." He did not seem to have a soft spot for the chief prosecutor either, shooting him a venomous look as he argued a technical point and throwing his head back in despair.
When Saddam's co-defendant and former deputy Taha Yassin Ramadan told him that he would not stay without his lawyer, Abdel-Rahman interrupted him.
"You were in office all these years of the regime, were the courts at that time like this one?" he asked.
"Better than this, and the courts were legitimate and established according to the state's law," Ramadan replied defiantly, then said he wished to leave.
The judge turned to the guards and said: "Take him away."
Abdel-Rahman pulled no punches with Saddam either.
When Saddam told him that he "regretted" the chaos in the courtroom, Abdel-Rahman retorted, "Keep your regrets to yourself." When Saddam reminded him later that he was Iraq's leader for 35 years, Abdel-Rahman said he was merely a "defendant" now.
A career judge with a reputation for efficiency and strict adherence to the law, the 64-year-old Abdel-Rahman is a native of Halabja, a Kurdish town where 5,000 people were killed in a 1988 gas attack allegedly ordered by Saddam. He graduated from Baghdad University in 1963 and is married with three children. His Arabic, a second-language to most of Iraq's Kurds, is almost flawless.
"He is a serious and honest person," said Omar Abdel-Rahman, a lawyer and colleague of Abdel-Rahman's who worked with in the 1970s. "He is a man of principles, but sometimes he gets angry quickly."
Amin, his predecessor, faced a flurry of criticism for not doing enough to rein in Saddam and Ibrahim. He quit Jan. 15 — a decision that drew accusations of political interference in a trial that has polarized this diverse nation of 27 million.
On Sunday, Amin appeared to have no regrets.
"I am happy that I am no longer part of this trial," he told The Associated Press from his home in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad. "I am happy to watch it on television while sitting in my house," he said.