BAGHDAD, Iraq – Defense witnesses argued on Monday that Saddam Hussein's regime was justified in a crackdown on Shiites after a 1982 assassination attempt and that 148 people sentenced to death in the attack got a fair trial.
During the session, chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman threw out of the court a man in the audience who the defense said was a member of a Shiite militia who had threatened lawyers in the past.
One of the defense lawyers complained to Abdel-Rahman about the man, saying he was whispering to another person in the audience "and is pointing at me."
"He is a member of the Badr Brigade," the lawyer said, referring to a militia linked to one of the Shiite parties in Iraq's governing coalition. "He once threatened one of my colleagues, who had to quit because of it."
Abdel-Rahman ordered the man in the audience to leave the court.
Two defense lawyers were killed soon after Saddam's trial began seven months ago, believed to be victims of reprisal attacks by enemies of the ousted Iraqi leader. Shiite militias have been accused in a wave of sectarian attacks against Sunnis in past months.
The court heard a series of defense witnesses testifying on behalf of Saddam and two of his top co-defendants — former Mukhabarat intelligence chief Barzan Ibrahim, and the former head of Saddam's Revolutionary Court, Awad al-Bandar. After a five-hour session, the court adjourned until Tuesday.
Saddam and seven former members of his regime are on trial on charges of crimes against humanity for killings, torture and the imprisonment of families during the crackdown launched after a 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam in the Shiite town of Dujail.
"Mr. al-Bandar took the humanitarian aspect into consideration, and he was fair and made all judgment according to law," said the first witness, a lawyer who worked at the court.
"The court allowed defendants to commission a lawyer and if a defendant was not able to hire a lawyer then the court would appoint one for him. The court also was allowing all defendants to talk freely," the witness said, speaking from behind a curtain to preserve his anonymity.
The prosecution has argued that the 148 effectively received a show trial and had no chance to defend themselves. It has presented documents showing that children were among those sentenced to death.
Al-Bandar has insisted the trial was fair and that all the defendants confessed to a role in the attack on Saddam. But he has acknowledged that there was only one defense lawyer for all 148 and that the trial only lasted 16 days.
The three witnesses for al-Bandar on Monday all acknowledged they had no connection to the Dujail case, and the chief judge in the Saddam trial, Raouf Abdel-Rahman, chided al-Bandar.
"The witnesses should have some connection to the Dujail case, people who worked with you during the case," he said.
"The accusations against me say that the court was not just, that it didn't allow any defense lawyers, I'm trying to address that," al-Bandar countered.
From the stand, the anonymous witness interjected: "The Revolutionary Court was better than any criminal court."
The day's second witness, also testifying anonymously, was a member of the army special forces who was jailed in 1982 for allegedly insulting Saddam and was put before the Revolutionary Court for trial.
"When I stood before al-Bandar, he asked me whether I have a lawyer," the witness said. "I said, 'No because I'm innocent your honor.' Then he called a lawyer to defend me and then I was found innocent."
The third witness, Galib Muttar Latif, was a retired policeman from Dujail, but had little to say about the Revolutionary Court. Instead, he asked Abdel-Rahman if he could greet Saddam, who sat nearby in the defendants' pen.
"This is a court and not a Baath Party meeting," Abdel-Rahman said with a laugh.
"All your relatives and mine, especially the Obeidat tribe, convey their salutations to you, Mr. President," Latif said, addressing Saddam who laughed, saying, "Well done, well done. Say hello to all of them and the Obeidat tribe."
The defense is in its third week of presenting witnesses in the 7-month-old trial of Saddam and his former regime officials. The eight face possible execution by hanging if convicted.
Monday's session went without the numerous outbursts that have marred the court in the past. In the last session, on Wednesday, Tariq Aziz — the highest ranking former member of Saddam's regime to testify so far — insisted that the government had no choice but to crack down on Dujail because the shooting attack on Saddam's motorcade was carried out by Iranian-backed guerrillas at a time when Iran and Iraq were at war.
U.S. officials observing the trial have said the proceedings could be wrapped up by late June, after which the court would adjourn to consider a verdict.