Prosecution witnesses to testify when Saddam trial resumes
BAGHDAD — After a nearly six-week recess, the trial of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is scheduled to resume Monday with prosecution witnesses taking the stand for the first time.
Saddam and seven co-defendants face charges of crimes against humanity in the deaths of 148 men north of Baghdad after a failed 1982 assassination attempt. If convicted, the accused could face the death penalty.
Defense attorneys had threatened a boycott of the trial after two of their own were assassinated after the introductory phase last month. Another defense lawyer fled Iraq after receiving death threats. While it is unclear who carried out the killings, or why, the defense team is expected in court Monday after getting security assurances from the Iraqis and a promise by the Americans to investigate the killings.
The extended defense team includes more than 1,000 lawyers, many of them outside of Iraq; the two who were killed were among 13 to appear at the court’s first session. The Iraqi High Tribunal afterwards rejected a motion to have the trial moved to another country.
On Monday, the first of about 30 witnesses will testify with a choice of either being shrouded by a screen or testifying in the open, the court has said. Some watchdog groups are warning that security concerns must be balanced by fair and open proceedings.
“The recent murder of two defense lawyers in the trial demonstrates the urgent need to protect those lawyers as well as witnesses. However, all arrangement for witness protection must be consistent with fair trial guarantees,” Richard Dicker, an international law expert with Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
Court officials and U.S. attorneys working on the case say this week’s session could end after three or four days, or be held over into a second week. Concerns about holding the trial during the run up to the Dec. 15 nationwide elections appear to be a factor, as U.S. and Iraqi military officials in Baghdad predict a spike in sectarian violence.
Before the witnesses take the stand on Monday, the chief judge of a five-judge panel will rule on a series of motions, including a defense motion to delay the trial again. If the trial goes ahead, the witnesses will recount what happened in Dujail, where 148 Shiite men were allegedly killed on Saddam’s orders. Last week, according to news agencies, leaflets were distributed in the town warning of death for anyone who testified at the trial.
Hussein was captured in December 2003 by soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division.
In a 21st century twist, the trial will be broadcast on the Internet by Court TV’s online service. The trial will be streamed online with a 20-minute delay, with highlights also posted on the Web site. The enhanced site costs $5.95 a month, but new users can try it free for 30 days, according to Court TV’s Web page.