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Last Updated: Monday, 5 December 2005, 17:06 GMT
Torture testimony at Saddam trial

By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs Editor, Baghdad

On its third day, the trial of Saddam Hussein and his associates suddenly began to hear the kind of evidence that goes to the heart of the case.

The witness was Ahmed Hassan Mohammed, from the town of Dujail, where more than 140 people were murdered after an abortive assassination attempt against Saddam in 1982.

Witness Ahmed Hassan Mohammed, from Dujail
Ahmed Hassan Mohammed gave a moving account of torture in Dujail

It was a rambling, emotional and sometimes deeply moving account of suffering.

He was beaten, tortured and himself saw the infamous mincing machine into which entire human bodies were fed, sometimes alive.

After being tortured or beaten, women prisoners gave birth to dead babies, whose bodies were thrown into the common courtyard and left there. Children were tortured in front of their parents, parents in front of their children.

As he went through his emotional, artless story, Saddam Hussein sat close to Mr Mohammed, only a few feet away, making occasional notes, toying with his reading-glasses, sometimes looking up sharply at him, or asking him questions which the senior judge refused to allow.

His time would come, the judge said.

Sometimes Saddam's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, would jump to his feet and shout at the witness, who said he had seen Barzan in the town of Dujail, heading the investigation into the attempt on Saddam's life.

Mr Mohammed said a group of senior people sent by Saddam himself had questioned him in prison. "We have disciplined the entire Iraqi people through you," they told him.

But soon Saddam and his half-brother managed to punch holes in the witness's testimony.

How could he know the names of so many intelligence agents when he was so young at the time, Barzan asked?

Saddam managed to give the impression that the witness had been thoroughly coached, by asking why he was allowed to bring so many files into court with him, while Saddam himself was only allowed to bring in a Koran.

After this first full day of evidence, the defence was doing remarkably well, given that its position is far from strong.

Skilful diplomacy

Earlier, the trial came perilously close to disruption when the entire defence team threatened to walk out, in protest against the judge's ruling that he would accept only written complaints about the legitimacy of the court.

There were problems too over the participation of foreign lawyers like Ramsey Clark, the former US attorney-general who is on Saddam's defence team.

Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin
Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin was tougher with Saddam Hussein

After some skilful diplomacy and compromising from the judges, Mr Clark was allowed to read a short statement demanding better protection for the defence lawyers, while another of Saddam's team contested the entire legal basis of the court.

Saddam Hussein has done the same thing rather more bluntly, complaining that this is just a creation of the American invaders.

But the senior judge, who in the two previous days' hearings gave Saddam and his lawyers a good deal of latitude, was much tougher towards him on Monday.

There were frequent moments of high drama, though. The chief defence lawyer interrupted the proceedings at one point to say that someone, possibly a member of the government, was threatening the defence team from the public gallery.

In the uproar, someone in the gallery shouted "These are criminals" and was escorted out by the police.

But as ever, Saddam himself had the best line of the day so far. When his lawyers threatened to boycott the court and a recess was called, he shouted: "Why don't you just execute us?"

After that, the court guards lowered the curtains on the press box, and the sound from the courtroom was cut.

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