BAGHDAD, Iraq – Two witnesses in the Saddam Hussein trial testified Thursday before the court adjourned for nearly two weeks, but the former Iraqi leader and his seven co-defendants had either boycotted the session or were barred from the court.
Saddam and four of the other defendants have boycotted the trial since Sunday. On Thursday, chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman barred the remaining three defendants, the only ones who had attended this week's sessions.
Abdel-Rahman announced at the beginning of the session — which started more than 90 minutes late — that the three defendants had caused "chaos" outside the courtroom. He declined to elaborate.
The eight defendants' chairs stood empty in a pen in front of the bench, as the judge ordered the proceedings to continue. The court heard two witnesses, both testifying from behind a curtain to hide their identities, before Abdel-Rahman adjourned the trial until Feb. 13.
Saddam and his co-defendants are on trial for the killing of more than 140 Shiites after the 1982 attempt on the former ruler's life in Dujail, north of Baghdad. They face death by hanging if convicted.
The first witness to take the stand Thursday said he was 13 when he was arrested in the Dujail sweep after the assassination attempt against Saddam. He told the court his sister was stripped naked and tortured in front of him.
"People returning (to their cells) from torture sessions could not walk for days. We had to carry them to the toilet," he said.
The other witness told the court that Barzan Ibrahim, the No. 2 defendant in the trial after Saddam, tortured him in prison after he was arrested in the crackdown.
The witness said he was taken to the Baghdad headquarters of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency, where interrogators forced him to strip and hung him from his feet. They beat him with hoses and applied electric shocks to him, including to "sensitive parts" of his body, he said.
At one point, Ibrahim entered the interrogation along with two men in civilian clothing, the witness said. The former intelligence chief asked one of the men to light a cigarette for him, and Ibrahim put it out on the witness's head, the witness told the court.
The session was unusually short, just under two hours. The prosecutor told the judge he had only two witnesses for the day, and it did not appear the session was cut short because of the defendants' absence. But the long adjournment suggested the court wanted time to resolve the standoff with the defense.
Abdel-Rahman has shown his determination to push ahead with the trial amid the boycott. But the absence of defendants and their chosen lawyers has raised worries over the credibility of a landmark trial that U.S. and Iraqi officials hoped would help Iraqis move beyond the sharp divisions left by the Saddam era.
The defense team walked out during a stormy session Sunday and said it will not participate in the trial until Abdel-Rahman is removed, alleging he is biased against Saddam. Abdel-Rahman appointed new defense attorneys but Saddam and the four other defendants have rejected the new lawyers and refused to attend the trial until their original ones are restored.
The remaining three defendants attended a session on Wednesday, which was the smoothest day of testimony to date in the trial.
The trial has been plagued by the assassination of two defense attorneys, delays, arguments, insults and outbursts by Saddam and Ibrahim. Abdel-Rahman was brought in as chief judge after his predecessor resigned amid criticism he was not controlling the proceedings.
The defense team accuses Abdel-Rahman, a Kurd, of having a "personal feud" with Saddam because the judge was born in Halabja, a Kurdish village hit by a poison gas attack allegedly ordered by Saddam in 1988. Some 5,000 Kurds were killed in that attack, including several of Abdel-Rahman's relatives.
Saddam's original chief attorney, Khaled al-Dulaimi, also claimed that Saddam's regime tried Abdel-Rahman in absentia and sentenced him to life in prison in 1977. He said the judge was a member of a Kurdish party that was opposed to Saddam and so "holds political animosity with the defendant."