BAGHDAD, Iraq — A defiant Saddam Hussein rejected charges of war crimes and genocide in a court appearance today, telling a judge in his first public appearance since his arrest: “This is all theater, the real criminal is Bush.”
Saddam was handcuffed when brought to the court but the shackles were removed for the 30-minute arraignment at Camp Victory, one of his former palaces on the outskirts of Baghdad.
“I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq,” Saddam said unprompted, sitting down in a chair facing the judge on the other side of a wooden railing. When asked his name, he repeated it in full: “Saddam Hussein al-Majid, president of Iraq.”
The appearance, broadcast on Arab satellite television stations, gave Iraqis their first glimpse of the former dictator since his capture by the U.S. military seven months ago. They saw a Saddam whose mood ranged from nervousness and exasperation to contempt and defiance - even flashes of anger. He even seemed to lecture the judge at times.
Unaccompanied by a lawyer, Saddam refused to sign a list of charges against him unless he had legal counsel, and he questioned the court’s jurisdiction.
“Please allow me not to sign until the lawyers are present. … Anyhow, when you take a procedure to bring me here again, present me with all these papers with the presence of lawyers. Why would you behave in a manner that we might call hasty later on?” he said.
The 67-year-old Saddam appeared most agitated when the subject came to the invasion of Kuwait - one of the broad charges against him.
“The armed forces went to Kuwait,” Saddam said. “Is it possible to raise accusations against an official figure and this figure be treated apart from the official guarantees stipulated by the constitution and the law? Where is this law upon which you are conducting investigations?
“How could Saddam be tried over Kuwait that said it will reduce Iraqi women to 10-dinar prostitutes?” Saddam asked, referring to himself in the third person. “He defended Iraq’s honor and revived its historical rights over those dogs.”
At this point, the judge admonished him and said he would not tolerate such language in the courtroom.
The seven broad charges against Saddam are the killing of religious figures in 1974; gassing of Kurds in Halabja in 1988; killing the Kurdish Barzani clan in 1983; killing members of political parties in the last 30 years; the 1986-88 “Anfal” campaign of displacing Kurds; the suppression of the 1991 uprisings by Kurds and Shiites; and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
A formal indictment with specific charges is expected later, said Salem Chalabi, director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal. Those were expected to include war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. The trial is not expected until 2005.
Saddam wore a charcoal-colored, pinstriped jacket with a white shirt open at the collar, and black trousers and shoes. He often stroked his trimmed, gray-and-black beard and had heavy bags under his eyes. He sat calmly, gesturing with his hands while addressing the court and sometimes taking notes on a piece of yellow paper.
His appearance was in sharp contrast to video taken of him after his December capture, when he looked heavier, his beard was longer and his hair was gray and unkempt.
Saddam was flown by helicopter from an undisclosed location and driven to a courtroom on a U.S. base. He was led from an armored bus escorted by two Iraqi guards and ushered through a door guarded by six more Iraqi police. The bus was escorted by four Humvees and an ambulance.
Saddam arrived in a blue jumpsuit, but was given a suit to wear that came off the rack from a Baghdad store - attire that would not be humiliating but also not flashy.
Saddam was heard before he was seen, his chains clanking as he walked down the corridor.
When he first sat down, he was visibly nervous - his eyes roving left to right. He was particularly interested in the Iraqis in the room, especially Chalabi and National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie, who were to his right.
He used his hands constantly, poking the air, dragging a thumb across his eyebrow, brushing a fly from his cheek.
When asked if he could afford a lawyer, Saddam retorted: “The Americans say I have millions hidden in Switzerland. How can I not have the money to pay for one?”
At one point, according to a commentary by Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, Saddam asked the judge whether he would be tried under laws from his rule.
Saddam told the court that the U.S.-led forces in Iraq were not “coalition troops but invasion troops,” according to Al-Jazeera.
Saddam insisted the judge refer to him as the “president of the Republic of Iraq” because “this would be respecting the will of the people,” according to Al-Jazeera.
Strict pool arrangements severely limited media access to the hearing. The pool video, which was cleared by the U.S. military, was initially broadcast without sound, but parts later were released with sound.
The only journalist working for an Iraqi publication, Sadiq Rahman of the newspaper Azzaman, was ordered out of the courtroom by the judge 10 minutes before the hearing began. One Iraqi working for the pan-Arab Shaq al-Awsat newspaper was allowed to attend.
“Unfortunately, they are already being unfair to Iraqi journalists,” Rahman said afterward, noting that some U.S. television reporters were allowed inside in addition to the pool.
Saddam and 11 of his top lieutenants were transferred to Iraqi custody Wednesday. They no longer are prisoners of war but are still locked up, with U.S. forces as their jailers.
“The next legal step would be that the investigations start proper with investigative judges and investigators beginning the process of gathering evidence,” Chalabi said. “Down the line, there will be an indictment, if there is enough evidence - obviously, and a timetable starts with respect to a trial date.”
President Ghazi al-Yawer told an Arab newspaper that Iraq’s new government has decided to reinstate the death penalty, which was suspended during the U.S. occupation.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the trial will lay bare the atrocities of Saddam’s regime and help the country recover from years of tyranny, the U.S.-led invasion and the insurgency that blossomed in its aftermath.
But the trial could also widen the chasm among Iraq’s disparate groups - Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.
“It’s going to be the trial of the century,” al-Rubaie told Associated Press Television News. “Everybody is going to watch this trial, and we are going to demonstrate to the outside world that we in the new Iraq are going to be an example of what the new Iraq is all about.”
Wednesday’s transfer of legal custody took place in secret. Chalabi said the defendants were individually informed of the change in their status to criminal suspects.
“Some of them looked very worried,” Chalabi said of the other defendants, who include former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, the regime’s best-known spokesman in the West; Ali Hasan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali”; and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan.
The initial proceedings took place in secret because of fears that insurgents, many of them Saddam supporters, might exact revenge on participants.
Issam Ghazawi, a member of Saddam’s defense team, said he received threats in a telephone call Wednesday from someone promising that anyone trying to defend Saddam would be “chopped to pieces.”
U.S. officials had hoped to delay proceedings against Saddam until the Iraqis set up a special court and trained a legal team. But Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose government regained sovereignty Monday, insisted on taking legal custody of Saddam quickly. The Americans agreed on condition they keep custody of him.
Trying Saddam and top regime figures presents a major challenge to the Iraqis and their American backers.
Allawi’s government is due to leave office after January elections, and a second national ballot will be held later next year. That means national policy on prosecuting Saddam and his backers could change depending on the makeup of the government.
Most of Iraq’s 25 million people were overjoyed when Saddam’s regime collapsed, and many are looking forward to the day he will be punished.
“Everyone all over the world agrees that Saddam Hussein should be put on trial in front of the Iraqi people,” Baghdad resident Ahmad al-Lami said.
However, the turmoil of the past 14 months has led to a longing for the stability and order of the ousted dictatorship, at least among Sunni Arab Muslims who now feel threatened by the possibility of a Shiite-dominated government.
“Saddam Hussein was a national hero and better than the traitors in the new government,” a resident of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated hometown of Tikrit told APTN, refusing to give his name.
In Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, resident Ammar Mohammed said the Americans should be put on trial first because they “killed thousands of Iraqis in one year of occupation.”