Saddam in Court: Defiant and Remorseless
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
When Saddam Hussein was cross-examined for the first time today, his trial in Baghdad, he was defiant, belligerent and remorseless. Hussein is on trial with seven others for ordering the killing of 148 Shiite men and boys after he was the target of an assassination attempt in the town of Dujail in 1982. New York Times correspondent Edward Wong was in the courtroom for the testimony today.
EDWARD WONG: The prosecutor, a man named Jaafar al-Musawi, basically grilled Saddam. He asked Saddam whether Saddam had command of the military forces that went about committing some of these atrocities. He asked whether Saddam had signed an execution order, and Saddam admitted that he had done that, which seemed to bolster the prosecution's case.
BLOCK: Now, some of these were children, teenage boys, under the age of 18. What was said about that in court today?
WONG: The prosecutor started grilling Saddam about whether he had killed children. Saddam lashed out and said he doesn't kill children, he doesn't believe in killing innocent children. And then the prosecutor presented plastic I.D. cards from some of the victims that showed their ages with nearly 30 of them under the age of 18. Then Saddam got very angry at that and said basically any I.D. card can be faked. He said that that doesn't prove anything.
BLOCK: I gather that Saddam Hussein also directly addressed the judge and the prosecutor today. What was he saying to them?
WONG: He tried to basically dress them down. He told the judge that the judge had been convicted twice of crimes in Iraq. And that he had, Saddam had sort of pardoned the judge at one point. And then he pointed at the prosecutor at one point and angrily shouted at him that he would still be in the Army if Saddam hadn't promoted him from those ranks. And I think all that is exaggeration because there doesn't even seem to be any relationship between Saddam, or these men, before they had ever met in the courtroom.
BLOCK: It sounds like there were points today when Saddam Hussein managed to, or at least tried to turn this into a tirade against the interior ministry and reprisals against Sunnis. How did that come about?
WONG: That was pretty interesting. I mean, it showed that Saddam obviously is very much aware of the very bloody events that are going on today in Iraq. He basically wanted to compare his regime to the current one. And he said that, well under my rule, we didn't have thousands of bodies turning up, a lot of them tortured by the interior ministry. And under my rule we weren't throwing bodies into the streets likes dogs or cats. So he's basically implying that Iraq has crumbled into chaos since he was ousted as leader.
BLOCK: This was cross-examination of Saddam today by the prosecution, but did you hear from his defense attorneys today as well?
WONG: We did. They made several different arguments. There was an Egyptian lawyer who had not shown up in court before. This was his first time. He basically argued that Saddam was president of Iraq at the time, and he had constitutional powers to suppress threats into jail. And so any executions that he had ordered were legal under the constitution. Then probably the most dramatic moment of the day came when the only woman lawyer in the room, one of the defense attorneys, stood up and tried to speak to the judge. And when presiding judge tried to quiet her down, she basically pulled out these posters of, the fairly infamous photos of Abu Ghraib that we've all seen.
And she basically asked the judge whether he had looked at what the Americans were doing in this country. She was saying why are you trying Saddam when you should be looking at the atrocities being committed by the Americans? And she was yelling for a while, and a couple bailiffs had to escort her outside of the courtroom.
BLOCK: And just to be clear here, it sounds like Saddam Hussein is not denying anything that he's charged with here. He's admitting that he approved the death sentences for everyone in Dujail. He's contesting how old some of them may be, but it's not like he's saying this never happened. He's admitting it did.
WONG: That's right. It actually helps the prosecution a lot. Because one thing the prosecution had been trying to do was establish a clear chain of command between Saddam and the people who carried out the orders. And if Saddam steps forward and says, hey look, I ordered this, but it was justified, then that solves half the prosecution's problem in that they no longer have to establish a clear chain of command.
BLOCK: Edward Wong thank you very much.
WONG: Thanks a lot.
BLOCK: New York Times Correspondent Edward Wong who was in the courtroom today for the cross-examination of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.