Three hours after it finally opened under the most intense Iraqi and international scrutiny, Saddam Hussein’s trial came to a sudden halt for one simple reason – fear.
Some 30 to 40 witnesses to the killing of 143 people, allegedly on the direct orders of the former dictator, were simply too frightened of the vengeance of his followers to go to court yesterday.
The proceedings were very different from the Nuremberg trials of German leaders because in Baghdad it is the prosecution and not the accused who appear more terrified. Television was allowed to show the faces of only one of the judges. The identity of the others is a deep secret.
The trial so far is the opposite of the demonstration of unchallenged state authority that the Iraqi government hoped for.
The trial will resume on 28 November. Explaining the delay, the presiding judge, Rizgar Mohammed Amin, said: “The main reason is that the witnesses did not turn up.”
The defence also needs time to study documents linking Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants to the murders.
The extraordinarily elaborate security measures taken to protect the court shows how difficult it will be conduct a trial in a country at war. The courtroom is inside a sturdily built former Baath party headquarters in the heart of the heavily fortified Green Zone on the banks of the Tigris river in Baghdad. Even so US officials behaved as if they expected imminent attack.
Officials and journalists had their identities established by iris scan and were repeatedly searched. They were brought to the court in a bus with curtains drawn. They were not even allowed to bring a pencil and note book into the court room. Saddam Hussein and his seven co-defendants, all elderly men, sat in a series of white cages like gigantic play pens.
Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, told The Independent earlier that the trial had been delayed so long largely because of the difficulty in finding judges willing to risk their lives by presiding over the proceedings. He said there also needed to be a more effective witness-protection programme. It is unlikely that the government and the Americans can have wanted Mr Amin, a Kurd from Sulaimaniyah, to preside over the trial since many Iraqis will believe that any Kurd will inevitably be biased against Saddam.
Presumably no non-Kurdish judge was willing to take the job. The television camera studiously avoided showing the faces of the other five judges sitting with him. In the event Mr Amin, a relaxed grey-haired man, seemed notably fair and even smiled when Saddam reacted badly to his question: “Who are you? What is your identity?” he asked.
“Why don’t you take a seat and let the others say their names and we will get back to you.”
Saddam shot back: “You are an Iraqi and you know who I am.”
The former leader had lost none of his imperious presence as he walked slowly to his seat carrying the Koran in one hand. He said he had been up since two in the morning but said: “You know I do not get tired.” At one point he demanded, and received, a yellow legal pad and pencil.
When Saddam Hussein was leaving the court for a break, two guards escorting him tried to grasp his arms but he angrily shook them off. They tried to grab him again and he struggled against them shouting until he was allowed to walk freely.
The Iraqi leader’s former henchmen, his half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and his vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan both looked shrunken and defeated. But Saddam appeared reinvigorated at being once more at the centre of world attention, apparently already casting himself in the heroic role of martyr. Several times he said he could not accept the judge, saying he was “the former Iraqi president” since he had been chosen by the Iraqi people.
Saddam’s presentation of himself as victim may be less easy to maintain when the trial resumes if credible evidence is produced of the torture and killings of the people of Dujail, the Shia town where he survived an assassination attempt in the summer of 1982. Not only were 143 people executed over the years, but 399 men, women and children were sent to a concentration camp near Samawa in the torrid southern desert. Their houses were bulldozed and their date palms cut down and the ground strewn with salt.
Iraqis listened to the trial with fascination. People craned towards television sets to hear the uncertain sound emerging from the court. Security guards who could not leave their posts to watch television had all brought radios to work.
Opinions of the trial follow sectarian lines. Kurds without exception want Saddam Hussein to be executed. For 35 years he massacred, tortured and imprisoned them. They are delighted he is now in the dock and want to see him die.
The Shia community – a majority of the 26 million Iraqi population – largely feels the same way. It is only the five million Sunni Arabs who believe that his trial is unfair.
Umm Hassan, a middle-aged housewife and a Shia from the Karada district of Baghdad, said: “Saddam must be executed. He is the biggest criminal in the world.”
Usama Karim Najim, a Shia student, said: “He killed my father and uncle in 1989 so I am an orphan, so of course I will be happy to see him die.”
But Selma Majid, a Sunni teacher, was distraught over the trial. “I was crying all last night because I believe he is innocent,” she said. ” I consider him to be the real President.”
Some Shias have reservations about the trial, not because they have any sympathy for the former leader, but because it is taking place under American occupation. Jaafar Ibrahim Rida, a Shia student, said: ” Certainly Saddam committed crimes against the Iraqi people but I don’t think it is right to try him now because people will say it was done under pressure from the Americans.”
PATRICK COCKBURN was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting in recognition of his writing on Iraq over the past year. His new memoir, The Broken Boy, has just been published in the UK by Jonathan Cape.