BAGHDAD, Iraq – The chief judge formally charged Saddam Hussein on Monday with crimes against humanity, including torture of women and children, murder and the illegal arrest of 399 people in a crackdown against Shiites in the 1980s. A defiant Saddam refused to enter a plea.
Saddam, who was alone in the defendants' pen as the charges were read, stood holding a copy of the Quran and insisted he was still Iraq's president, saying he did not recognize the court.
"Your honor, you gave a long report. That report can't be summed up by saying guilty or not," Saddam, dressed in a black suit, said after chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman read the charges list and asked for a plea.
"Your honor is now before Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq," Saddam said. "I am the president of Iraq by the will of the Iraqis, and I remain president of Iraq up to this moment. I respect the will of the Iraqi people and I will defend it with honor in the face of the collaborators and in the face of America.
"I do not recognize the collaborators that they brought to appoint a court and put forward a law with retroactive effect against the head of state, who is protected by the constitution and the law," he said.
With the reading of charges, the trial — which began Oct. 19 — enters a new phase, with the defense presenting its case.
Saddam and seven former members of his regime are on trial over a crackdown against residents of the town of Dujail, and they face a possible execution by hanging if found guilty.
Under the Iraqi trial system, the court first hears plaintiffs outline their complaint against the defendants and the prosecutions' evidence against them. Then the judges decide on specific charges, and the defense begins making its case.
Security forces arrested hundreds of Dujail residents, including entire families, in the wake of a 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam in the town.
Witnesses, including women, have recounted being tortured while in prison, farmlands were razed in retaliation and 148 Shiites were sentenced to death in connection to the shooting attack on Saddam. All 148 were killed, either dying under interrogation or executed.
The charges against Saddam read by Abdel-Rahman included the arrest of 399 people, the torture of women and children, ordering the razing of farmlands.
He was also charged in the deaths of nine people who Abdel-Rahman said were killed in the first days of the crackdown, as well as the deaths of 148 who were sentenced to execution by his Revolutionary Court.
"After allegations of coming under an assassination attempt, you issued orders to security forces and the army to arrest residents and use all weapons against them," Abdel-Rahman told Saddam.
"As a result for your orders to use force against Dujail residents, nine people were killed in the first two days ... and 399 others were arrested," he said.
"According to orders from you, the presidential office transferred 148 persons, some of them died due to torture in Mukhabarat and Abu Ghraib, to the Revolutionary Court ... which issued the death sentence against them and you immediatly ratfied the death sentence in presidential document No.778 in June 1984," he said.
After Saddam refused to enter a plea, Abdel-Rahman called in the next defendant, Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim, former head of the Mukhabarat intelligence agency. He read the same charges against Ibrahim.
"All you said are lies, everything you mentioned is a lie," Ibrahim replied, and Abdel-Rahman recorded a plea of not guilty.
Abdel-Rahman then proceded to call in each of the remaining defendants one by one to read the charges against them. All the defendants were charged under Article 12 of the 2005 criminal code of the Special Criminal Tribunal, which defines crimes against humanity. All six other defendants pleaded innocent.
After the charges were read, the defense began presenting its case, with five witnesses testifying on behalf of several of the lesser co-defendants.
The trial has faced numerous delays and setbacks — with two defense lawyers killed soon after it began and repeated outbursts in court by Saddam and Ibrahim slowing down the proceedings. But U.S. officials observing the trial have said they expect the trial to speed up, with up to three sessions a week being held.
The special tribunal set up to try Saddam and his former regime officials are preparing a second trial against the ousted leader on genocide charges in connection to a 1980s military campaign against the Kurds known as "Anfal" in which an estimated 100,000 people were killed.
In past session, the prosecution sought to show Saddam was closely involved in the Dujail crackdown, presenting memos from Saddam's office ordering the 148 put on trial before the Revolutionary Court and approving the death sentences issued against them.
Iraqi handwriting experts authenticated Saddam's signatures on the documents, though the defense questioned their findings. Saddam admitted in court that he ordered the men put on trial.
Saddam and the other defendants have argued that their actions were a legal response to the attempt to kill the former Iraqi leader, whose motorcade came under fire as it drove through Dujail in July 1982. The attack was blamed on the Iranian-backed Shiite Dawa Party.
But prosecutors argued that the crackdown went far beyond the actual authors of the attack to punish the entire town. It said the 148 were sentenced to death after a fake trial, and that children as young as 11 were among those convicted.
Abdel-Rahman read charges against Awad al-Bandar, the head of the Revolutionary Court. The only charge against him was the issuing of the death sentences.
" As the head of the disbanded revolutionary court, you issued the decision of sentecing them [the 148] to death by hanging," he told al-Bandar.
"I am innocent," al-Bandar replied.
Another co-defendant, Taha Yassin Ramadan — a member of Saddam's ruling Revolutionary Command Council — was charged on the same counts as Ibrahim, along with overseeing the confiscating and razing of farmlands belonging to Dujail residents. Ramadan also pleaded innocent.
The remaining defendants — Mizhar Abdullah Ruwayyid, Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid, Ali Dayih and Mohammed Azawi Ali, all lower-level Baath Party officials from Dujail — were charged with informing on Dujail residents who later either died in prison or were sentenced to death.