BAGHDAD, Iraq – Saddam Hussein's lawyers walked out of his trial Wednesday to protest the replacement of the chief judge, who had been accused of favoring the defense.
The deposed leader protested and was ordered to leave the courtroom.
Defense lawyers questioned the impartiality of the trial when the session began under Judge Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa in place of Abdullah al-Amiri, who was removed after he was accused of being too soft on the former Iraqi leader.
Al-Amiri told Saddam last week in court that "you were not a dictator," and an aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the judge's comments were one reason for his replacement.
"The head of the court is requested to run and control the session, and he is not allowed to violate judicial regulations," Hussein al-Duri told Al-Arabiya television. "It is not allowed for the judge to express his opinion."
When the session began Wednesday with al-Khalifa in charge, the defense lawyers questioned the impartiality of the trial.
"We don't expect from this court established under the occupation authorities to be fair, so we decided to withdraw from this trial," defense lawyer Wadoud Fawzi told the court, reading a statement on behalf of the defense team.
Saddam faces a possible death penalty if convicted on genocide charges over a military offensive against Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s.
Al-Khalifa said replacing the chief judge was an "administrative matter," and that the court would appoint new counsel. Saddam said he wanted his lawyers to stay and protested against court-appointed counsel.
"This is our personal right," Saddam shouted as he pointed his finger at the judge and pounded his fist on the podium. "You must deal with us as the law dictates."
Al-Khalifa asked him to stop talking but Saddam refused, prompting the judge to order him out of the courtroom. A fiery exchange ensued.
The deposed leader told the judge: "Your father was in the security [forces] and he went on working as a sergeant in the security until the fall of Baghdad" — a reference to the 2003 U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam's regime.
"I challenge you in front of the public if this is the case!" al-Khalifa shouted.
Saddam's cousin, "Chemical" Ali al-Majid, told al-Khalifa that he also rejected court-appointed lawyers.
"I'll stay [in the courtroom], but I'll decline to say anything or defend myself and I'll gladly accept any verdict, even if it's the death penalty."
The judge then resumed the session, calling in an elderly Kurdish witness to take the stand.
The Iraqi High Tribunal, the country's supreme court, had asked for al-Amiri to be replaced in a letter to al-Maliki, who approved it Tuesday, according to an Iraqi government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Al-Amiri's comment angered many Kurds and Shiites, fueling their criticism that he was too lenient with Saddam. Prosecutors in the trial already had asked for al-Amiri to be replaced after he allowed Saddam to lash out at Kurdish witnesses during a court session.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was "very concerned" about al-Amiri's removal.
"This appears to be improper interference in the independence of the tribunal, and may greatly damage the court," the non-governmental organization said.