Saddam Hussein sat in the dock last Wednesday in the building which once housed the national and international headquarters of his Baath Party in Baghdad, looked up at the senior judge on the bench, and paused for a beat or two before answering his question.
Saddam Hussein faces possible execution if found guilty
"I've said what I have to say, and I'm innocent," he answered.
A plea of not guilty to the charges of ordering the massacre of 143 men in the town of Dujail in 1982 was entered.
But what was Saddam saying? That none of the crimes with which he has been accused were really committed by him? That his underlings carried them out without his orders or knowledge?
Surely not. The prosecution has - or said in court that it had - a document from Saddam's officials requesting permission to carry out the executions.
It is countersigned in Saddam's characteristic red ink with the word in Arabic meaning "I accept".
According to government officials in Baghdad, the prosecution has a similar document which links Saddam with the use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988.
Unless, at the end of the Dujail case, the Iraqi government decides it has sufficient grounds to execute Saddam for that alone, a trial for the Halabja massacre will follow.
And there could be a couple more after that, perhaps relating to the invasions of Iran in 1980 and of Kuwait in 1990.
Even without the evidence of the documents, it is unthinkable in a system as ferociously controlled as Saddam Hussein's Iraq that senior or junior officers might have done any of these things on their own authority.
Saddam must know that the only way this process will end is with his execution - unless, of course, his lawyers can string it out until the point where he would be too old to be executed.
We should not automatically assume that he wants to be martyred. When he was discovered in his cleverly concealed foxhole near the town of Tikrit, he did not use his gun to die in a blaze of glory.
Something much bigger probably underlies his plea of not guilty: the sense that, even if he was responsible for ordering the Dujail massacre, he was innocent of doing anything wrong
Instead, he put his hands up and told the American soldiers who found him that he wanted to negotiate.
Perhaps he believes that the resistance movement can force the Americans and their few remaining allies to leave Iraq, and that he can make a come-back.
You and I might find the idea of a come-back unlikely. But if you are all alone in your cell with no one except a few GIs and a box of some strange American breakfast cereal for company, it is not always easy to see things as they really are.
So maybe he is merely playing for time, hoping the lawyers will carry on arguing until something comes up.
But something much bigger probably underlies his plea of not guilty - the sense that, even if he was responsible for ordering the Dujail massacre, he was innocent of doing anything wrong.
Saddam Hussein's notion of governing a restless, difficult country like Iraq was that it could only be done with ferocity.
In that he was no different from the presidents and kings before him; no different either from the British, who had the mandate from the League of Nations to run Iraq after 1920, and who used some ferocious tactics to try to protect their rule.
They took over, full of the conviction that as the most powerful military nation on earth, with the best political system in human history, the Iraqis would be delighted to be ruled by them.
Within six months the British were negotiating a way out, and after twelve years (imperial powers hate to seem to be cutting and running) they gave up the mandate and left.
Whether history will repeat itself now, we will have to wait and see.
Like the British, like the kings, like coup-leader General Qassem and the rest, Saddam believed he had a right to govern Iraq by force.
When his ambassador in London was called into the Foreign Office in 1988 to receive a formal complaint about the use of chemical weapons at Halabja, where five thousand men, women and children died, his answer was simple: "But they're our people." In other words, Saddam could do what he liked with them.
Saddam may also face trial for murders in Halabja in 1988
It is a simple enough justification. If the job of keeping Iraq together required it, Saddam believed, then any amount of force was justified. He did not kill people merely because he was blood-thirsty; in fact, unlike his unspeakable son Uday, Saddam seemed to gain no particular pleasure from having people tortured and murdered. It was simply something that had to be done.
Saddam may have a longer-term ambition, other than simply keeping on existing - to turn himself into a martyr.
He and his lawyers will argue again and again that the US and Britain had no right to march into Iraq and overturn its government, no matter how much they might have disliked it.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world, including plenty who live in nasty dictatorships, will agree.
That really would be a strange outcome - for the worst tyrant of recent times to emerge from all of this as a hero.
Your comments on John Simpson's piece:
A thoroughly enlightening piece to read on how it seems possible that a man, renown worldwide as being one of the most forceful and tyrannical leaders in the world, may have the possibility of rising as a hero, much to the coalition's dislike. The question is; why wasn't Saddam tried in the Hague, rather than Iraq as I'm sure the Saddam wouldn't mess around the judge like he has been doing.
Simon Gibson, South Woodham Ferrers, Essex
Whatever people think of the invasion of Iraq, they should not confuse this with Saddam's trial. His was a ruthless, brutal dictatorship and Iraqis deserve to see him answer for it. The rest of the world should not let conscience over the war detract from the justice that may result from it.
John Met, London, UK
John makes a very powerful point. It's about viewpoints and precendence. From a modern day Western perspective, Saddam was wrong. But equally, the West doesn't attack North Korea. There are double standards, and they aren't explained. From a more fundamentalist Muslim perspective, he has the right to rule in a forceful way. This type of governing is still seen in a lot of other countries today - Saudi - and the West accepts this. Precedent is normally considered as a guidance on behaviour. What is it about the West, particularly America, that allows them to disregard their history, and allows precedent to be rendered invalid. We are what we are, and history tells us how we were forced (usually) into these behaviours. We aren't blameless here. Saddam and his rule are never the less reprehensible. Best way to see this is for the West to leave, and let the Iraqis judge him alone.
Graham van Tuyl, Doha, Qatar
We are witnessing what has been repeated for centuries - Victors are right. Whatever be the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein, the only reason he is on trial today is because America and Britain were able to defeat him.
Why is Saddam's testimony being so heavily censored? Why can't we hear what he has to say? After all, it is our sons and daughters dying there in pursuit of British foreign policy. If he is the demented tyrant, so hated by everyone including his own people, what harm could it do to hear him? I think we all know why. Because Saddam knows things - lots of things, which neither the USA or UK want Saddam Hussein shouting about.
Andy, Argyll, Scotland
Saddam Hussein evil regime was based on mass killing, torture, wars and execution. This notion that 'he did what he had to do with no concern for human life' I as an Iraqi and as a human being find this unjustifiable. He has destroyed and burnt Iraq to the ground and still we question the issue of morality and humanity. What make me sick to the bone are those people who forget and don't want to believe the true extent of his actions.
Ammar Hassan, London/born in Iraq)
It seems suspiciously convenient that Saddam could be executed for the Dujail massacre without standing trial for other crimes, where he might reveal the support given to his regime by the US and European governments throughout the 1980s.
Dan Richardson, London, England
The opinions here seem to only be drawn from the misleading information that we are gaining from the western media. For one thing, the Sunni and Shi'a ratio is nowhere near as huge as the media has made it out to be. In reality the difference is so little - both in population and in practice. Voting in Iraq is something that people think is just 'going to work'. The fact is that, as GW Bush said, you cannot have democracy under occupation. Well its time to start playing your own game! While we talk about the horrors under Saddam Hussein's regime, we seem to forget about the sufferings of current day Iraq, thanks to our oppressive forces.
Usayd Younis, Manchester, UK