BAGHDAD — As they began the closing phase of an often-troubled trial, Iraqi prosecutors Monday called for death sentences against Saddam Hussein and three former aides for crimes against humanity that "spread corruption on earth and where not even the trees escape their oppression."
Chief Judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman held firm control of a court that has sunk into disarray and farce at times during the eight months it has heard the case of Dujail, where 148 people were killed after a 1982 assassination attempt against Mr. Hussein.
The trial was designed to bring justice to a nation starved of it during a generation of Hussein's authoritarian rule. But ending that era, and instilling new faith in the rule of law among Iraqis, is proving difficult in the face of insurgency, chronic insecurity, and sectarian bloodshed – not to mention courtroom antics that have often been more comical than judicial.
Hussein, with a graying beard and hair apparently dyed black, sat poker-faced Monday, occasionally cracking a bemused smile. When the prosecutor finished his arguments, Hussein muttered sarcastically: "Well done."
The Dujail case is the first of a string of cases against Hussein and the former regime, most of greater magnitude. They include the gassing of Halabja that killed 5,000 Kurds in 1988, and the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in northern Iraq that same year, which left some 100,000 dead and 4,000 villages destroyed.
Investigators are continuing to unearth mass graves as they collect evidence for subsequent proceedings. Already they say they have documented evidence of more than 100,000 victims from an anti-Shiite crackdown after the 1991 Gulf War.
"I think in the future, the cases will get better ... the evidence will be better," says Zuhair al-Maliky, former head of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq. "In my opinion, Dujail is the weakest case. I would not use that as a starting point for the tribunal."
If Hussein is found guilty, the verdict will be appealed, but the sentence could be carried out before other cases are heard.
Experts say this trial has not been conducted according to international standards, a concern raised when the decision was first made to hold it in Iraq. The global import of similar cases has led to international tribunals, beginning with the Nuremburg trials of Nazis to more recently ones for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in The Hague and in Tanzania.
But some observers argue that this process has been uniquely Iraqi, and has enabled Iraqis to own and be closer to the outcome. Omar, a mechanic in Baghdad, is glued to the proceedings. "It's a show" he never misses on TV, he says.
Monday, chief prosecutor Jafar al-Musawi told the court that, "The suffering of the Dujail people turned their days into night.... It peaked when Saddam Hussein visited them on July 8, 1982. What followed were barbaric and cruel and savage acts."
Those included an execution order for 148 villagers, though a document from Hussein's intelligence service noted that "of those who were sentenced to death, 46 ... had been eliminated or died during the investigation." Beyond that "harsh torture," prosecutor said, nearly 400 people were held in the desert for four years, and the aerial bombing of Dujail orchards "led to murder."
The prosecutor said the attack was "motivated by revenge," and cast doubt on whether an assassination attempt took place at all. "This was not a criminal investigation, but a military operation ... that led to the death of women, children, and elderly men," Mr. Musawi said. "Even the trees did not escape."
The prosecutor called for the "maximum punishment" for the former Iraqi leader, his half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, and the former head of the Revolutionary Court, Awad Hamid al-Bandar.
The prosecution also called for charges to be dropped against farmer Mohammad Azzawi Ali, and "minimum" sentences for the three other low-ranking defendants. The defense team will make its closing arguments on July 10, after which the five judges will consider their verdict.
The air of relative civility that prevailed in the courtroom Monday masked a messy trial that has seen the murder of two defense lawyers, defense boycotts, the resignation of a chief judge, and long political speeches by the defendants that have only been reined in since Judge Abdel-Rahman took control last January.
The quiet image of the men in the dock stood in stark contrast to scenes after the regime was toppled in 2003: scores of mass graves; more than 900 individual graves near Abu Ghraib, crippled survivors of Halabja, and a nation damaged by more than two decades of war and sanctions.
In court Monday, the name "Saddam" rang out again and again, as the prosecutor and lawyers sought to punch holes in the defense team's case that all acts were legally carried out.
One lawyer, who could not be named or shown on the time-delayed TV, said the "so-called assassination attempt ... was imaginary," and that the regime had violated UN conventions on human rights and genocide.
Another lawyer said some testimony was faked, referring to confessions from four defense witnesses that they lied under oath.
Indeed, defense witnesses have often made contradictory or strikingly consistent statements. That was the case last Tuesday, when three former Hussein bodyguards, testifying from behind a curtain, each said the target car had been marked by a woman who had just slaughtered a sheep, using her bloody handprints. Each said the presidential convoy halted 50 yards after coming under gunfire from an orchard on the left. Each said that they heard Hussein issue orders to halt return fire.
"My understanding is that he did not want a single animal to be injured," the witness said. When asked by a defense attorney if such a man could ever order revenge, he replied: "I know the president has such high moral standards; his conscience would not allow him...."
At that, the judge dropped his head into his hands, clearly disgusted.
Such exchanges have kept Iraqis tuned into the 35 sessions so far. Several members of one family laughed about an exchange last week, when defendant Ibrahim complained that two guards were afraid to testify. "Afraid of whom? Ghosts?" asked Abdel-Rahman. "Afraid of this terrifying court," replied Ibrahim. "They're afraid to talk to you anymore." "You're terrifying," the judge shot back.
Within minutes, Ibrahim was removed from the court as defense lawyers cried: "They're assaulting him ... beating him!"
"Defense lawyers ... made a stupid strategy ... of challenging the legitimacy of the court," says Judge Maliky. "Instead of discussing evidence, they say: 'This court is illegal. This judge is illegal.' "
"They've done it for publicity," he charges, "to say: 'I was the lawyer of Saddam.'"