BAGHDAD, Iraq – The chief judge agreed Wednesday to allow the defense to call Saddam Hussein and his former intelligence chief as witnesses on behalf of one of their co-defendants in their trial on charges of crimes against humanity.
It was not clear when Saddam and Barzan Ibrahim would take the stand. After hearing nine defense witnesses, the court adjourned until Monday.
Defendant Taha Yassin Ramadan asked that Saddam and Ibrahim be allowed to testify on his behalf, but at the beginning of the session chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman refused the request.
But Ramadan stood in court in complained that he had no other witnesses to call to back his contention that he was not in the town of Dujail when Saddam's security forces launched a crackdown there in 1982, as the prosecution has alleged.
"I know no one from Dujail. Should I go there and ask around for people who can confirm that I was there or not? My witnesses are here with us," he said.
One of his lawyers asked the judge "to allow us to pose some questions to Saddam and Ibrahim," and Abdel-Rahman replied, "OK, you will be allowed."
Putting Saddam on the stand would allow the prosecution to cross-examine him, though the judge may limit their questions to his testimony on Ramadan's role in the crackdown.
The prosecution alleges that Saddam ordered Ramadan to bring his forces from the People's Army — a Baath Party militias — to Dujail to participate in arrests of Dujail residents and oversee the razing of farmlands after a July 8, 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam in the town.
Prosecutors have directly questioned Saddam once already in the 7-month-old trial, when the judge called each of the eight defendants one-by-one for testimony. Saddam's turn took place in an April 5 session, when he acknowledged approving death sentences for 148 Shiites from Dujail but otherwise dodged many of the prosecutors' questions.
Saddam and his seven co-defendants face possible execution by hanging if convicted for alleged crimes against humanity in Dujail — including killing women and children, torturing detainees and arresting some 399 people in the sweep through the town.
Now in its third day, the defense is focusing on witnesses on behalf of three low-level defendants in the case — Mohammed Azawi Ali, Abdullah Kazim al-Ruwayyid and his son Mizhar, who were Baath Party officials in Dujail.
Saddam appeared jovial throughout the session, smiling as he entered and joking with the judge when Ali shouted that he had nothing to do with the crackdown.
"Dujail's residents are known for their hot blood," Saddam said of Ali, drawing a smile from chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman.
Saddam even stood and made a point in favor of the prosecution in an argument that broke out when prosecutors objected to testimony by a relative of Ali on the grounds that he was only 7 years old when the Dujail crackdown was launched in 1982.
"The man was 7 years old at the time and is 30 now, it's a long period," Saddam said. "Imagination is part of a child's nature ... so that could lead him to give testimony based on imagination, and that would lead to injustice."
Saddam and other top defendants have argued that the crackdown was a legal response to the assassination attempt.
But in the case of the lower-level defendants, the defense is trying a different tack, arguing that they were not involved at all in the sweep of arrests against Dujail residents.
In Wednesday's session, three witnesses testified on behalf of Abdullah al-Ruwayyid — including one of his nephews — speaking from behind a curtain to protect their anonymity.
One of the witnesses, a Dujail residents, said he saw Abdullah al-Ruwayyid leaving Dujail the day after the assassination attempt to return to his unit of the People's Army, a Baath Party militia, in the northern city of Mosul.
"I saw him a month later, and never heard from any Dujail residents that he took part in any arrests with the security forces," the witness said.
Six other witnesses then took the stand to testify on Ali's behalf, including his wife, one of his sons and a member of his tribe.
The tribesman said Ali was arrested the day of the attack on Saddam and briefly detained until then-intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim — one of the top defendants in the trial — ordered his release. He said cousins of Ali who were members of the Shiite Dawa Party, which was behind the shooting attack, were also arrested.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi argued that his testimony should be ignored because he was seven years old at the time and was only reporting what he heard, but the judge allowed his testimony.
Ali's wife, also speaking from behind a curtain, said Ali was later removed from the Baath Party because of his cousin's links to Dawa.
In the charge sheet announced Monday, Abdel-Rahman accused the two al-Ruwayyids, Ali and a fourth defendant of sending letters to security forces the day of the attack informing on Dujail residents. Some of the people they named — including women and children — later died from torture or harsh prison conditions or were among the 148 people sentenced to death and executed for the assassination attempt.
Iraqi experts authenticated their handwriting in the letters, though the four deny writing them.
U.S. officials observing the court have said a verdict could come as soon as August. The defendants have the right of appeal, which could extend the proceedings for months.