BAGHDAD, Iraq – A defense witness stunned the court trying Saddam Hussein and fellow regime members Tuesday by testifying that nearly two dozen Shiites the defendants are accused of killing are still alive.
The claim by the anonymous witness prompted Chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman to order an inquiry.
Defense lawyers said that if the claim was true, the court should review the entire case against Saddam and his seven co-defendants. Saddam and his former intelligence chief, Barzan Ibrahim, stood in court and called for an investigation.
"We heard today a very dangerous thing, which puts the court at a crucial crossroads," Ibrahim said.
He even called for U.S. officials — whom he has repeatedly accused of interfering in the trial — to help with the investigation. "We trust the Americans more than Iraqis," he said.
Saddam and his former regime members are accused of killing and torturing Shiites in a crackdown launched in Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt on the former leader. Prosecutors say 148 Shiites were sentenced to death for their alleged roles in the assassination attempt, and they all were either hanged or tortured to death.
Saddam and his co-defendants could be hanged if convicted of crimes against humanity.
But the witness, who testified from behind a curtain to protect him from reprisals, said he recently saw 23 of those Shiites who were sentenced to death.
"I've eaten with them, I've met them," the witness said. "I can take the chief prosecutor to Dujail and have lunch with them."
He gave Abdel-Rahman the names of six he claimed are alive.
Chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Moussawi cast doubt on the witness, saying records showed the man was not a resident of Dujail as he claimed.
The development came as the defense said one of its witnesses had been killed and complained that security threats were hampering its case.
"The defense is not free to present its witnesses the way the prosecution is," one defense lawyer told Abdel-Rahman.
The lawyer said some potential defense witnesses will not appear in court because they are wanted by the U.S. military or Iraqi government. He did not elaborate.
The witness who was killed was not identified in court. But defense lawyer Najib al-Nuaimi told The Associated Press it was Ziyad Mizhar al-Ruwayyid, a son of defendant Mizhar al-Ruwayyid who testified two weeks ago.
Ziyad was shot to death Monday by gunmen in Dujail, and another relative who testified, Mizhar's uncle, Saleh, was kidnapped, al-Nuaimi said. Members of the Shiite Badr Brigade went to the home of another witness and threatened his family members, al-Nuaimi said, without identifying the witness.
"There is a big problem in Dujail," al-Nuaimi said. "They are going after any witnesses who are there. There is a lot of fear."
U.S. and Iraqi leaders hope a fair trial could help Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds put the atrocities of Saddam's regime behind them.
Two defense lawyers were killed early in the trial, and a defense attorney accused a spectator Monday of belonging to a Shiite militia that has threatened lawyers. The judge ejected the spectator.
The defense complaints came after Abdel-Rahman chided Saddam's team for trying to expand its witness list. The judge has shown increasing impatience with witnesses having no direct connection to the case.
Abdel-Rahman also refused a defense request to show DVDs as evidence, telling the lawyers to make a written request.
Saddam interjected that Abdel-Rahman should give the defense as much time as the prosecution.
The deposed president then pointed to a relief of justice scales on the wall behind the judge and said: "In order to attain balance, to give equal justice, as the balance hanging on the wall shows, we must give the same opportunity which has been given to the prosecution witnesses to the defending witnesses."
The DVDs are part of a defense attempt to question the credibility of prosecution witness Ali al-Haidari. He testified he was arrested at age 14 in the Dujail sweep and was tortured with electrical shocks and beatings.
Under defense questioning, he said was there was no shooting attack on Saddam in Dujail on July 8, 1982 — only celebratory shooting to mark his visit.
One DVD shows al-Haidari addressing a 2004 ceremony in Dujail and praising the attack on Saddam, the defense said. The Arab news network Al-Arabiya aired parts of the video Tuesday, showing al-Haidari praising the shooting as an attempt by "sons of Dujail ... to kill the greatest tyrant in modern history."
The defense said al-Moussawi, the chief prosecutor, was at the ceremony, showing he knew about the contradiction in al-Haidari's testimony. Al-Moussawi appeared in the footage aired by Al-Arabiya.
The defense has argued the Dujail crackdown was a legitimate response to the attempt to kill Saddam by the Shiite Dawa Party, which was backed by Iran at a time when the countries were at war.
The prosecution maintains the sweep went far beyond the actual perpetrators of the attack, and says Saddam forces arrested entire families and tortured and killed women and children in detention.