BAGHDAD, Iraq — Saddam Hussein refused to attend his trial for crimes against humanity on Wednesday, delaying the often chaotic proceedings for hours before the presiding judge decided to press on with the televised hearing without him.
After only two and half hours in session, the presiding judge said the court would next sit on Dec. 21, six days after the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. Two more witnesses, hidden behind a curtain, recounted tales of torture in prison in the 1980s.
Saddam’s co-defendants and his lawyers were present in the courtroom when Chief Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin convened the session at 3 p.m., about four hours late.
Saddam’s place at the front of the penned-in dock was conspicuously empty. He said at the close of Tuesday’s hearing that he would not attend an “unfair” trial and complained of exhaustion and being denied a change of clothes.
Amin said the court would inform Saddam about or brief him on the proceedings that took place during his absence.
The judge then told defense lawyers the court would meet with them after the session to discuss security for the lawyers, which has become a major issue after two members of the defense team were killed.
The 68-year-old’s no-show is the most dramatic twist so far in a trial that has been plagued by delays, faulty equipment and rambling testimony since it opened on Oct. 19.
‘Saddam did not boycott’
Court official Raid Juhi told reporters after the session that Saddam attended a closed-door hearing that preceded the public session “and the court decided that he should be removed from the hearing on the basis of the law.”
“So Saddam did not boycott, but he was allowed to stay out of the hearing on the basis of a certain request,” Juhi said without explaining what it was. “He was present at the courtroom during the closed session. He presented something to the court and the court decided to excuse him.”
Juhi said Saddam would attend the Dec. 21 session.
“The court is trying to balance the rights of the defense with the rights of victims,” Juhi added.
Under Iraqi law, which forms the basis of the tribunal’s rules in an amalgam with other principles of international law, the trial can continue to its conclusion without Saddam but his absence will deprive millions of Iraqis the chance to see their former president in the dock.
Tale of abuse
During Wednesday’s session, an unidentified male witness, testifying behind a beige curtain to conceal his identity, said he was arrested after the assassination attempt and taken to Baath Party headquarters, where he found people “screaming because of the beatings.”
The witness said Saddam’s half brother and co-defendant, Barazan Ibrahim, was present.
“When my turn came, the investigator asked me my name and he turned to Barazan and asked him: ‘What we shall do with him?’ Barazan replied: ‘Take him. He might be useful.’ We were almost dead because of the beatings.”
But under questioning by the judge, the witness said he was blindfolded at the time and believed it was Ibrahim speaking because other prisoners told him so.
The witness said he was taken to Baghdad “in a closed, crowded van that had no windows.”
“When we arrived at the building they asked us to stand along the wall,” he said. “We were told to stand only on one foot, and we kept on this position for two hours before we were taken to cells with red walls. I was thirsty but the water was very hot.”
After a few days, the witness said, he was moved to “Hall 63,” where “we were kept handcuffed for five days with little food and very hot water. They used to take some persons and bring them back naked. The signs of torture were clear on their bodies.”
Concerns over trial
Saddam and his co-defendants, who face hanging, have said their trial is a sham and have repeatedly disrupted it, haranguing the judge and chief prosecutor and accusing witnesses, most of whom have testified from behind a curtain out of fear, of lying.
Saddam’s threat not to attend the Wednesday session came at the end of a daylong session in which five witnesses related the events of a 1982 crackdown on Shiite Muslims.
The two women and three men that testified Tuesday were hidden from the public view and had their voices disguised to protect their identities.
The most compelling testimony came from the woman identified only as “Witness A,” who was a 16-year-old girl at the time of the crackdown. Her voice breaking with emotion, she told the court of beatings and electric shocks by the former president’s agents.
Ibrahim made his own complaints against the court Wednesday, saying that he spent more than eight months in solitary confinement in a windowless facility without air conditioning, electricity or running water.
“I couldn’t tell if it was day or night,” he said.
Ibrahim said guards would force him and other prisoners to exercise, or punish them when they refused by withholding cigarettes, tea or by reducing food rations.
“When I was detained I was wearing pajamas that I kept wearing for nine months until my brother came and gave me a dishdasha” — a traditional robe, he said. “For one year I did not drink tea or coffee. We had little food.”
Ibrahim said he lost nearly 40 pounds in two months.
Saddam's half brother discusses Dujail
At one point during the trial, Ibrahim sought to distance himself from the Dujail events, saying that his position as head of intelligence was a political post, and that the treatment of prisoners was not the responsibility of the security services.
Referring to the “red room” that two witnesses testified about Wednesday, Ibrahim said he “never set foot in such a place.”
Addressing the judge, he said: “I am not a jailer. I am a political official.”
Earlier, he said he was only responsible for the security of Saddam at the head of a team that numbered around 50.
He said when he heard about the Dujail incident, “I went there to see what happened. I was there on the first and second day. My responsibility ends when the detainee goes to prison.”
The trial has rekindled painful memories for many Iraqis.
However, after four sessions, some observers have voiced doubts about the strength of the Dujail case, and the judge has instructed some witnesses to focus their rambling testimony.
The U.N.’s human rights chief in Iraq says he sees little prospect of the trial meeting international standards.
International human rights and legal observers have raised concerns about witness protection, security and the fact that the death penalty cannot be commuted if it is imposed.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.