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An angry and defiant Saddam Hussein was back in court today. After a six-week delay, an Iraqi tribunal heard videotaped testimony from a single witness in the case against Saddam and seven others, and then it recessed for another week. The defendants want more time to find good lawyers and to organize their cases. And as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Baghdad, the delays are frustrating Iraqis who are trying to follow the proceedings on television.
PETER KENYON reporting:
The former dictator arrived in an irritable mood despite the fact that Chief Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin had ordered his handcuffs removed. Saddam complained about his treatment at the hands of American guards who walked him up four flights of stairs because the elevator wasn't functioning. When the judge said he'd speak to someone about it, Saddam chided him testily. Although oddly enough, for a man who rejects the authority of the court, his complaint appeared to be that the court hadn't taken custody of him soon enough.
Former President SADDAM HUSSEIN (Iraq): (Through Translator) Your Honor, I do not want you to ask them. Order them. They are on our land. You have sovereignty here. You are an Iraqi. They are the invaders and occupiers.
KENYON: The judged told Saddam to stop wasting his time and, for much of the rest of the hearing, the lead defendant sat quietly jotting down notes. After excerpts from a video about the 1982 killings in the village of Dujail, a video that suffered from technical problems, the only testimony presented today was read aloud by the judge. The witness was Wadah al-Sheik, an official in Saddam's intelligence service, who had been videotaped in a prison hospital and died shortly after giving his testimony. He detailed some of the orders he was given during the reprisals in Dujail after Saddam's convoy was attacked by gunmen.
The witness had little to say about Saddam himself, recalling only a secondhand comment that the president had ordered everyone in the village who was capable of handling a weapon rounded up and jailed. As for the more than 140 villagers killed during that period, Sheik said most of his orders came from another defendant, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, then head of intelligence. The witness recounted the slaughter of villagers in a farmhouse, in the fields and elsewhere.
(Soundbite of testimony)
Mr. WADAH AL-SHEIK (Witness): (Through Translator) And I want to make it clear that after the shooting incident, a number of people were killed in the orchards by bodyguards of the accused Saddam Hussein. I also heard that some of those killed were relatives of one of the intelligence officers. Later they were deemed to be martyrs because they had nothing to do with the incident.
KENYON: During the lunch break, the defendants had time to confer with their defense team, newly bolstered by the addition of former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark and a former justice minister from Qatar. The defendants returned to court with a litany of complaints. Two of them refused their court-appointed attorneys despite agreeing to them earlier in the day when their own attorneys failed to appear. Another defendant, Awad Hamid al-Bandar, said he'd received a death threat from a man who allegedly claimed his brothers had been executed by Saddam.
Judge Amin adjourned the proceedings for a week to give the eight defendants time to arrange acceptable counsel and prepare their case. Given the extreme security risks these lawyers are running with two of their number slain in the recent weeks and considering that these charges may result in the death penalty, the delays didn't seem unreasonable.
But on the streets of Baghdad there was impatience with the slow grind of the wheels of justice. In a downtown Baghdad coffee shop, 52-year-old Abu Saraj(ph) shared a common Iraqi view: The trial is taking too long and death is too good for Saddam Hussein.
Mr. ABU SARAJ (Baghdad): (Through Translator) It's not that I want him to live. No, I would like to see him executed, but, if you ask me, I think it's better that he's sentenced to life in prison so he can wake up every day and feel how we Iraqis suffered and remember all the people he killed.
KENYON: But another coffee drinker, small-business owner Amir Abu Omar(ph) reflects the complicated relationship many Iraqis have with their longtime leader. It's a mix of revulsion at his deeds underlaid with a kind of nationalist pride at his strong character, mixed with the shame of living now under what many Iraqis see as a foreign military occupation.
Mr. AMIR ABU OMAR (Business Owner): (Through Translator) Saddam is guilty. He has hurt his people. He is a tyrant, but he is a brave man, a real Arab. He has honor, but still he is a criminal. But the foreigners who come and talk about democracy, what do they do? They kill thousands of people.
KENYON: There were other brave Iraqis today who were never seen: the witnesses from Dujail, a small town where anonymity for any length of time is unthinkable. They were ready to tell their stories, possibly at great risk to themselves and their families, to do their part to see if justice can be done in Iraq more than two decades after the slaughter in their village. If they get to testify next week, Iraqis say it may be a small step away from an oppressive past, away from a chaotic present and toward a saner future. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.
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