BAGHDAD, Iraq – Relatives of defendants in the trial of Saddam Hussein and members of his former regime testified Tuesday as the defense tried to knock down charges of crimes against humanity that carry a possible death penalty.
Their testimony came a day after chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman accused Saddam of ordering a "systematic, wide-scale attack" on Shiites in the town of Dujail — including the killings of women and children, torture and the imprisonment of 399 people. The judge read similar charges against each of Saddam's seven co-defendants.
That brought the seven-month-old trial to a new, intensified level. Under the Iraqi system, the charges effectively put the burden on proof on the defense because they represent accusations that the five judges believe the evidence so far has supported.
Two sons of defendant Abdullah Kazim al-Ruwayyid told the court their father and brother, Mizhar — who is also a defendant — had nothing to do with the crackdown in Dujail. The wife of one of Mizhar's brothers and two of Mizhar's uncles also took the stand.
The charges on Monday followed months of hearing prosecution witnesses describe torture at the hands of Saddam's intelligence agents and documents allegedly tying the Iraqi leader to the crackdown.
Intelligence and security forces swept up hundreds of Dujail residents following a July 8, 1982, assassination attempt on Saddam in the town. Abdel-Rahman listed the names of 17 people — including women and children — out of 46 that prosecutors say died in prison or from torture during interrogation.
Saddam's Revolutionary Court sentenced 148 Shiites to death for the assassination attempt. But Abdel-Rahman dismissed the court as a show trial, saying it was "swift" with "no possibility of appeal" and that some of those sentenced had already died in prison.
After a five-hour session Tuesday, the trial was adjourned until Wednesday. The first half of the day's proceedings were shown in a tape-delayed broadcast. But the second half was not aired because of technical problems, court officials said.
The two al-Ruwayyids and Mohammed Azzawi were the only defendants who appeared in court Tuesday. The three — former local officials in Saddam's ruling Baath Party — sat silently during the testimony, frowning and looking glum.
They are accused of sending letters to security officials informing on Dujail residents after the assassination attempt, leading to the deaths of some of those they pointed out to security forces.
The relatives all spoke from behind a curtain and their names were not announced to protect them from reprisals. The sons said three pieces of land owned by the family were among the farmlands razed in retaliation for the attack on Saddam.
"Mizhar is a simple man. He just works as a telephone operator. Everybody in Dujail loves him," one of them insisted.
Mizhar al-Ruwayyid's sister-in-law said Mizhar was forced to stay at the Dujail telephone office where he worked for 15 days after the shooting against Saddam because of a general alert in the town. Her testimony was aimed at refuting statements by some prosecution witnesses that Mizhar accompanied security forces on some arrests.
At times, the testimony turned into shouts and bickering between defense lawyers and Abdel-Rahman after the judge told one of the witnesses not to refer to Saddam as "Mr. President."
"We express our rejection over the court's interference in choosing the witness's words," chief defense lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi said. "The defense team is insisting that President Saddam Hussein is the legal and legitimate president of Iraq and he is so despite the (U.S.) invasion."
"What is built on falsehood is falsehood," he said, referring to defense arguments that the court is illegitimate because it was created under the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
"This is a pure criminal case, we don't have anything to do with politics," Abdel-Rahman shouted at the defense lawyers. "Your witness is a simple man with nothing to do with politics who is here to try to show your clients' innocence. Ask him questions."
Since the trial began, the defendants have tried to dismiss the court as illegitimate. Saddam on Monday defiantly refused to enter a plea to the charges and insisted he remained Iraq's president. Abdel-Rahman entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf, and the other defendants also pleaded not guilty.
The other main defense argument has been that the crackdown was a legal response to the attack against Saddam, carried out by members of the Iranian-backed Shiite Dawa Party.
The prosecution has argued that the crackdown went far beyond the actual perpetrators of the shooting and collectively punished the entire population of Dujail.
U.S. officials observing the trial have said a verdict could come in August. If sentenced to death, the defendants would have the opportunity of appeal — raising the possibility of months of additional legal proceedings.
The special tribunal is preparing to start a second trial against Saddam on genocide charges in a 1980s military campaign against the Kurds known as "Anfal" in which an estimated 100,000 people were killed.