BAGHDAD, Iraq – The chief judge in Saddam Hussein's genocide trial said Thursday that he did not believe the former Iraqi leader was a dictator.
Judge Abdullah al-Amiri made his remark in a friendly chat with Saddam during court proceedings, a day after the prosecution said the judge should step down because he is biased toward the defense. Saddam and his co-defendants are being tried on charges of committing atrocities against Kurds in northern Iraq nearly two decades ago.
A 57-year-old Kurdish farmer testified Thursday that the ex-president aggressively told him to "shut up" when he pleaded for the release of nine missing relatives.
"I wonder why this man (the witness) wanted to meet with me, if I am a dictator?" Saddam asked.
The judge interrupted: "You were not a dictator. People around you made you (look like) a dictator."
"Thank you," Saddam responded, bowing his head in respect.
A Shiite Muslim with 25 years experience, al-Amiri was a member of Saddam'sBaath party and served as a judge in a criminal court under the former leader's regime. He heads the five-judge panel that will decide the fate of Saddam, a Sunni Muslim.
On Wednesday, Chief Prosecutor Munqith al-Faroon demanded al-Amiri to step down, accusing him of bias toward the deposed leader and his co-defendants.
"You allowed this court to become a political podium for the defendants," al-Faroon told al-Amiri.
The prosecutor said the judge was giving Saddam time to make "political" statements that were irrelevant to the proceedings.
"For instance yesterday, instead of taking legal action (against Saddam), you asked his permission to talk," al-Faroon said. "The action of the court leans toward the defendants."
On Tuesday, Saddam bellowed against "agents of Iran and Zionism" and vowed to "crush your heads" after listening to Kurdish witnesses allege atrocities committed against them during the government's Operation Anfal crackdown on Kurds in the late 1980s.
On Thursday, the court heard a shaken Kurdish man, Abdullah Mohammed Hussein, recount his meeting with Saddam years ago, following the Anfal offensive.
"I told Saddam, 'Sir, my family members were arrested,"' Hussein recalled.
"Saddam asked me where, and I told him, 'in my village.' Saddam said, 'Shut up. Your family is gone in the Anfal,"' Hussein said, referring to the 1987-88 campaign to suppress the Kurds revolt in northern Iraq.
The witness looked anxious as he sat in a Baghdad courtroom giving the opening testimony in the fourth court session this week in the former Iraqi leader's trial.
Hussein said he had not been shy about arguing with Saddam, whom he had been allowed to see in response to a plea he presented to local authorities in his village.
Speaking in Kurdish through an Arabic translator, Hussein said Saddam told him, "Shut up. Don't talk anymore. Get out of here."
"I saluted him, saying, 'Yes, sir.' And I left. I consoled myself, thinking that Saddam may feel sorry for me and set my family free. I was very sad. But I really hoped he would release them," he said.
Saddam initially sat silent, looking at the witness. At one point, he asked the chief judge for a pen and paper to take notes.
But he later questioned the accuracy of the testimony, insisting that he has "never seen this man before. I don't know him."
Hussein, a Kurd, had no family relation to Saddam, a Sunni Muslim Arab.
The witness said that only two years ago, local authorities in his village told him they found the remains of three of his relatives in a mass grave. He said the whereabouts of the rest of them was unknown.
He also demanded "financial and moral" compensation for his loss. He told the court that he wished to "lodge a complaint" against Saddam and his cousin and co-defendant, "Chemical" Ali al-Majid.
One of Saddam's lawyers asked the court to strike the testimony from the record, arguing that it was "inaccurate." He accused Hussein of "changing his account," by telling investigators earlier he was part of a Kurdish militia, but then testifying before the court he was not.
Previous witnesses also said the remains of their relatives, who went missing during the Iraqi government's Operation Anfal, were found in mass graves several years later. Some recalled how they survived chemical attacks allegedly carried out by Saddam's regime against the Kurdish population.
Saddam has accused the Kurdish witnesses of trying to sow ethnic division in Iraq by alleging chemical attacks and mass arrests in their villages during the late 1980soffensive.
Saddam and six others, including "Chemical" Ali, have been accused of genocide and other offenses in connection with Anfal.
The prosecution alleges that about 180,000 Kurds died — many of them civilians. Saddam and the others could face death by hanging if convicted.