BAGHDAD, Iraq – A former judge who sentenced 148 Shiites to death under Saddam Hussein's rule in the 1980s told prosecutors in Saddam's trial Thursday that the suspects had confessed and received a fair trial that lasted 16 days.
Wearing a red checkered traditional headdress, al-Bandar stood alone in the defendants' pen, often appearing nervous and agitated as chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman and prosecutors questioned him. Al-Bandar was one of seven co-defendants in the case who were cross-examined last month, but he was called back for both the defense and prosecution to present new documents.
Saddam was not in the courtroom. On Wednesday, the former president was cross-examined by prosecutors for six hours for the first time in the six-month trial.
Prosecutors are seeking to show that al-Bandar's Revolutionary Court gave the 148 Shiites only a cursory trial on charges they tried to assassinate Saddam in the town of Dujail in 1982 — and that Saddam approved their death sentences even though many had nothing to do with the attack.
"It was a legal and a just court," al-Bandar insisted, saying the defendants had confessed to carrying out the assassination plot "with instructions from the government of Iran to overthrow the regime in Iraq."
He said his court carried out a 16-day trial, working from 9 a.m. to midnight.
"I was keen to carry out justice and I hoped that the defendants would be found not guilty. ... May God be my witness, it made us happy whenever a defendant was released."
He acknowledged that none of the defendants in the case was found innocent. He also said the 148 suspects had only one court-assigned lawyer among them.
"We appointed a lawyer because no lawyer was hired," he said. Asked how many lawyers, he said the court's policy was to appoint one lawyer per case regardless of the number of defendants.
"All the defendants were present in the court. ... They confessed before me and the ruling was issued," al-Bandar said. "If I, as a judge, issue a sentence in accordance with the law, should I be punished?"
Saddam and the seven former members of his regime face possible execution by hanging if found guilty over the crackdown launched against residents of Dujail after Saddam's motorcade was shot at as it passed through the Shiite town in 1982. Hundreds — including women and children — were imprisoned, some of them saying they were tortured, and 148 Shiites were killed.
The defendants have insisted their actions were a legal response to the assassination attempt. But prosecutors have sought to show the sweep went far beyond the actual attackers, including children as young as 11 years old who were killed.
Defense lawyers on Thursday presented a series of handwritten documents from 1984 they said were confessions by some of the Shiites, telling their interrogators they plotted with the pro-Iranian Shiite Dawa party to kill Saddam.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi noted that one of the purported confessions was by a suspect, Ahmed Jassem, whose identity card showed he was 15 at the time. "He was a minor ... and he was tried and sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court," he said.
"The identity cards are forged," al-Bandar shouted. "I did not sentence minors. I sentenced adults. They were all over 20 years old."
After a two-hour session, the trial was adjourned until April 12.
In his testimony Wednesday, Saddam insisted he was convinced that the 148 were guilty, but evaded questions about how closely he looked at the evidence.
Asked if he had read the evidence against the men before referring them for trial, Saddam replied, "If the constitution requires the head of state to review documents before referral, then I abided by it." Pressed by prosecutors on the point, he snapped, "I have answered."
After the men were sentenced to death, he said, "I was convinced the evidence that was presented was sufficient" to approve the sentences.
Wednesday's session was the first opportunity prosecutors have had to directly question Saddam on the charges.
Earlier this week, the tribunal indicted Saddam and six former members of his regime on separate charges of genocide for a campaign against Kurds in the 1980s that killed an estimated 100,000 people.
A separate trial will be held on those charges, possibly beginning in 45 days, though some officials have questioned whether the tribunal will be able to conduct two trials simultaneously. In any case, it means a drawn-out legal process amid continued violence and political wrangling over the formation of Iraq's next government.