BAGHDAD, Iraq – Three of Saddam Hussein's co-defendants testified for the first time Sunday, denying any role in the deaths and arrests of Shiites in the 1980s as the trial of the former Iraqi leader entered a new phase.
Mizhar Abullah Ruwayyid, his father, Abdullah Ruwayyid, and Ali Daih Ali — former officials in Saddam's ruling Baath Party — stood one by one to be directly questioned by the chief judge and prosecutors about the crackdown launched against the Shiite town of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam.
After four hours of testimony, chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman adjourned the trial until Monday. Saddam was expected to be the last defendant to testify and could take the stand as early as Monday.
Saddam and seven former members of his regime are on trial for the deaths of 148 Shiites and the illegal imprisonment and torture of Dujail residents. They could face execution by hanging if convicted.
Since proceedings began Oct. 19, the prosecution has brought forward witnesses and presented documents they say prove the defendants' role in the crackdown.
The defendants frequently have spoken up during previous sessions, arguing their case. But Sunday's session represented the first time they directly testified.
Sunday's session was the first since March 1, when Saddam boldly acknowledged that ordered the trial of the 148 Shiites who were eventually sentenced to death by his Revolutionary Court. But he insisted his actions were not a crime, since the Shiites were suspected in the attempt on his life.
Abdel-Rahman asked Mizhar Abullah Ruwayyid to relate to the court what he was doing on the day of the assassination attempt against Saddam, whose motorcade was fired on as he visited Dujail on July 8, 1982. Ruwayyid said he was working as a telephone operator and held only a low-level position in the Baath Party at the time.
"I have no relation with the July 8 incident and I was not involved in any detentions that followed," he said.
Abdel-Rahman asked him about handwritten letters prosecutors presented last month, saying they were from Ruwayyid informing police on Dujail families allegedly linked to the Shiite opposition. Many of the families listed were arrested and several were eventually killed.
Ruwayyid denied the letters were his. "The state and the security services did not need the help of a small employee like me," he insisted.
The elder Ruwayyid told the judge he saw fellow defendant Barzan Ibrahim — Saddam's half-brother and the head of intelligence at the time — in Dujail after the shooting.
"After performing the afternoon prayers I went out and saw Interior Minister Saadoun [Shaker] and Barzan Ibrahim in the yard of the Baath Party office by themselves. They were talking. This is what I saw," he said.
But he denied any role in the crackdown that followed. "I have never detained people. I cannot even harm an insect," he said. "I will say the truth even it takes me to the gallows." Abdel-Rahman responded, "God willing there will be no gallows."
Ali, the second to testify, said he was in Baghdad the day of the shooting, though he returned to Dujail later in the day. "My foot did not step into any house in Dujail. We did not harm the people of Dujail and we did not write reports about them," he insisted.
Abdel-Rahman asked Ali about his signed affidavit to investigators, in which he said Ibrahim was heading the Dujail crackdown and Taha Yassin Ramadan, another of the defendants, was in charge of razing Dujail farmland.
Ali replied that he had only heard the two men were involved, not seen them, and said he had not read the affidavit before signing it. "My eyes started hurting after reading three lines," he said.
The court was silent as the defendants spoke. The defense team — including former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clarke — was present.
Last month, prosecutors began presenting documents they say directly pin Saddam to the Dujail crackdown — including a memo signed by Saddam approving death sentences against the 148 Shiites
But to convict the former Iraqi leader, they will likely have to convince the five-judge panel that Saddam was aware the crackdown went beyond the authors of the assassination attempt and aimed to punish a large civilian population.
Families — including women and young children — were swept up in the arrests and spent years in prison, and large swaths of farmland owned by Dujail families were razed. A string of Dujail residents have testified they were tortured in prison.