Seasoned Saddam browbeats young judge

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 5.07.04

Baghdad, July 4 (Agencies): Ousted President and former law student Saddam Hussein proved more than a match for the Iraqi Special Tribunal in round one of what is expected to be a long legal battle as he fights for his life.

“Saddam Hussein’s attitude could have a major impact on the image of the Americans who set up the tribunal,” Badie Arif Ezzat, a lawyer approached by the families of several former top officials also in the dock, said.

Chief US administrator Paul Bremer, who stepped down last week, established the tribunal by decree on December 10 to try the former leadership on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“You have on one side a President of the republic who signed laws for more than 20 years, and who knows the law, and on the other a very young magistrate who completed his studies in 1999,” noted Ezzat.

From the 25-minute pre-trial hearing on Thursday, only the first 12 minutes of the proceedings were audible in the video released by the US military.

A combative and confident Saddam, stroking his beard and repeatedly gesticulating to make a point, appeared to prove more than a match for the magistrate.

He turned the tables on the judge, whom he politely challenged and put on the defensive by presenting himself as the Iraqi people’s head of state while the magistrate was serving the “forces occupying” Iraq.

The strategy was simple: to interrupt the judge and barrage him with a stream of questions, some of them embarrassing.

When asked to introduce himself, the magistrate, whose identity and face were concealed for security reasons, said he was “the investigating judge of the central Iraqi court”. The former President made the judge repeat himself before setting the trap with the question: “it (the court) was created according to what decree?” It was established by “the coalition authorities,” the judge admitted. “This means then that you are an Iraqi representing the forces occupying your country,” came the reply.

The judge managed to add that he was appointed under the former regime, before a satisfied but ever polite Saddam said, “Ok, we are in agreement.”

Reaffirming his credentials as a former law student and that he knew the law, Saddam lectured the judge and added: “Just from the legal aspect of things, I imagine that you were made aware of the fact that I have lawyers.”

While refusing to sign any papers in the absence of counsel, Saddam also raised a key point of law on which his defence may rest. “Is it permissible to summon a President elected by the people and to judge him according to a law issued by his will and the will of his comrades?” the 67-year-old former strongman asked. “There is a contradiction here.”

A senior official of the tribunal, declining to be named, said the fallen President had exploited the presence of the cameras in the courtroom set up at one of his former presidential palaces.

Saddam heart disease

One of the few people to see Saddam before he appeared before the Iraqi judge, a young American doctor had a rare but brief glimpse of a toppled dictator who sent thousands of people to mass graves and defied the West for years.

“Saddam has heart disease. But it’s not unusual for someone who is 68,” said the doctor at a military hospital which handles US troop casualties and Iraqis who are at risk of dying, losing a limb or sight.

After his handcuffed patient stepped out of a helicopter in a helmet, flak jacket and black goggles, the American doctor was eager to ask many questions. But CIA agents cautioned him to ask Saddam Hussein only about his health after months in US detention. “We were told to stick to the medical check-up, not to ask too many questions. I couldn’t really discuss anything else. He was surrounded by CIA people,” the physician said.

Like millions of television viewers who watched Saddam in court last week, the doctor immediately noticed that the former dictator who used to swim across the Tigris river to boast of his fitness had shed significant weight behind bars. “They have got him on a diet of just vegetables and rice,” said the doctor.