Image: ABDULLAH KAZIM RUWAYYID
Jacob Silberberg  /  Pool via AP
Abdullah Kazim Ruwayyid, a former Baath Party official in the Dujail region, speaks during his trial in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday.
updated 3/12/2006 10:40:53 AM ET 2006-03-12T15:40:53

Two of Saddam Hussein’s co-defendants testified for the first time Sunday, denying any role in the deaths and arrests of Shiites in the 1980s, as the trial of the former Iraqi leader entered a new phase.

Mizhar Abullah Ruwayyid and Ali Daih Ali — former officials in Saddam’s ruling Baath Party — were brought in separately and questioned by the chief judge and prosecutors about the crackdown against Shiites after a 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam in the town of Dujail.

Saddam and seven former members of his regime are on trial for the deaths of 148 Shiites and the illegal imprisonment and torture of Dujail residents. They could face execution by hanging if convicted.

The testimony represents a new phase in the trial. Since proceedings began Oct. 19, the prosecution has been bringing forward witnesses and presenting documents they say prove the defendants’ role in the crackdown.

The defendants have frequently spoken up during previous sessions, arguing their case. But Sunday’s session represented the first time they have directly testified. It was not clear how many defendants would be heard Sunday and whether Saddam would be among them.

Sunday’s session was the first since March 1, when Saddam boldly acknowledged that ordered the trial of the 148 Shiites who were eventually sentenced to death by his Revolutionary Court. But he insisted his actions were not a crime, since the Shiites were suspected in the attempt on his life.

Ruwayyid: 'I was not involved'
Abdel-Rahman asked Ruwayyid to relate to the court what he was doing on the day of the assassination attempt against Saddam, whose motorcade was fired on as he visited Dujail on July 8, 1982. Ruwayyid said he was working as a telephone operator and he held only a low-level position in the Baath Party at the time.

“I have no relation with the July 8 incident and I was not involved in any detentions that followed,” he said.

Abdel-Rahman asked him about handwritten letters prosecutors presented last month, saying they were from Ruwayyid informing police on Dujail families allegedly linked to the Shiite opposition. Many of the families listed were arrested and several were eventually killed.

Ruwayyid denied the letters were his. “The state and the security services did not need the help of a small employee like me,” he insisted.

The next defendant, Ali, also denied helping the crackdown, saying he was in Baghdad on the day of the shooting, though he returned to Dujail later in the day.

“My foot did not step into any house in Dujail. We did not harm the people of Dujail and we did not write reports about them,” Ali said.

The court was silent as the defendants spoke. The defense team — including former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clarke — was present.

Last month, prosecutors began presenting documents they say directly pin Saddam to the Dujail crackdown — including a memo signed by Saddam approving death sentences against the 148 Shiites

But to convict the former Iraqi leader, they will likely have to convince the five-judge panel that Saddam was aware the crackdown went beyond the authors of the assassination attempt and aimed to punish a large civilian population.

Families — including women and young children — were swept up in the arrests and spent years in prison, and large swaths of farmland owned by Dujail families were razed. A string of Dujail residents have testified they were tortured in prison.

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