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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 October 2005, 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
Opening salvoes of Saddam trial
By Martin Asser
BBC News

Saddam appeared to have written notes on his left hand

It started just after midday - two hours later than everyone had been led to expect - with the news that Saddam Hussein had appeared in court in his old Baath Party headquarters on the west bank of the Tigris.

The flurry of news flashes about the start of the trial was then followed by a 20-minute blackout, because of a time-lag imposed on court footage by the judges.

But the time-lag did nothing to dampen the extraordinary drama of the moments that followed.

The television feed from courtroom came into view, revealing a silver-haired Iraqi judge in a grey suit and white-trimmed robes; three empty holding pens with rows of black leather chairs; Iraqi guards; and observers behind tinted glass.

At a nod from the judge - a Kurd, Rizgar Mohammed Amin - a court official shouted out the first defendant's name.

"Mohammad Azawi Ali" - a low-ranking Baath party official from Dujail, the village where the 1982 massacre that the trial is focussing on took place.

Unknown defendants

The first name was barked out several times, resounding off the marble walls of the courtroom.

An elderly, frail figure who eventually appeared at the rear of the court had to be helped to his seat by guards after they removed his handcuffs.

You know me! You are an Iraqi and you know that I don't get tired
Saddam Hussein, when asked by judge to identify himself

He slumped down in his seat, an unknown about to be joined by the most senior Arab ex-leaders ever to put on trial.

One by one, the likes of ex-intelligence chief Barzan al-Tikriti and ex-vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan were called and took their seats, among other Dujail officials and a former chief judge.

They were all bare-headed and wearing traditional long robes, apart from one in a blue jumpsuit.

Last of all the name everyone had been waiting for was called out: "Saddam Hussein al-Majid".

A thin but erect figure, in dark suit and, unlike his co-defendants, no handcuffs, came to the pen nearest the judge.

Defiant start

As with all other appearances since his capture, the dreaded ex-leader was calm and self-assured, the old voice, that once meant fear and utter authority to all Iraqis, instantly recognisable.

He was instructed by the judge to stand and identify himself for the purposes of the trial, but the grey-bearded figure, with his thick black hair combed stylishly to one side, was not having any of it.

He buttoned up his jacket and declared: "Those who fought in God's cause will be victorious... I am at the mercy of God, the most powerful."

"You are to give your full name to establish your identity to the court," the judge said.

"Who are you? What does this court want?" the defendant challenged.

"I don't answer this so-called court, with all due respect, and I reserve my constitutional right as the president of the country of Iraq.

"I don't acknowledge either the entity that authorises you, nor the aggression, because everything based on falsehood is falsehood," he said.

Tireless opponent

Smiling, but looking increasingly exasperated, the judge told his former president to "relax" and promised him that he would get his chance to speak later, but now all that was needed was the name.

"You know me," came the all-too-obviously correct response. "You are an Iraqi and you know that I don't get tired."

Realising that he was getting nowhere, the judge finally told Saddam Hussein to sit down, which he did without protest.

At this point four of the other defendants demanded to be given their tribal headdresses which they hastily donned when it was allowed by the judge.

It is not clear why they had not been wearing them, perhaps to stop possible suicides in jail - just as Saddam appeared without belt or tie.

The other defendants were then asked to identify themselves in a similar way, which some did, although Taha Yassin Ramadan echoed his master: "I repeat what President Saddam Hussein said."

The proceedings continued, with the main defendant declaring himself not-guilty of any charges read out by the judge and a prosecutor reading out the charges in detail.

They include torture and murder, and the judge told the court that if found guilty the defendants all faced the death penalty.

At the end of the three-hour session, Saddam staged another show of bravado. As the guards were leading him by the arms from the courtroom he pushed them away as he passed the journalists' enclosure.

"Dont' touch me. Take your hands off me," he said, and after a brief fracas the guards relented and allowed him to walk ahead.

Whether by chance or design, however, the delayed television feed had been cut off and only those present witnessed the incident.

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