First Public Appearance by Former Dictator in 7 Months


The New York Times

July 1, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 1 - Saddam Hussein defiantly faced an Iraqi judicial hearing today in Baghdad, where he was read seven preliminary charges against him that included the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the suppression of the Shiite uprising and the gassing of Kurdish villagers.

``I am Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq,'' Mr. Hussein replied when he answered the judge, whose first question was to ask his name.

Mr. Hussein appeared defiant but focused and coherent during the proceedings, which lasted 26 minutes.

At one point he said, ``Everyone knows that this is a theatrical comedy by Bush, the criminal, in an attempt to win the election.''

Mr. Hussein appeared at an annex to palace grounds that he built but that is now known as Camp Victory, an American headquarters near the Baghdad airport. He arrived in handcuffs, but those, along with a chain around his waist, were removed before he appeared in front of the judge.

When the clatter of chains falling outside the courtroom was heard, it was the first indication to the assembly of news media, new Iraqi government officials, American military officials and lawyers gathered inside that Mr. Hussein had arrived and that they were about to witness his appearance in the court.

Within moments, Mr. Hussein entered the room, his hands unfettered, wearing a gray pinstripe jacket, white shirt, brown trousers and black shoes.

He was visibly thinner than when he was president and when he was captured hiding in a hole in the ground outside of Tikrit, north of Baghdad, in December. His beard was closely trimmed and flecked with gray.

He appeared uneasy, his eyes darting to the left and to the right, where he took in the two tiers of Iraqi and American officials looking back at him.

He took a seat, separated by a railing from a judge who sat at a table.

``Are you Saddam Hussein?'' the judge asked him.

``Yes, I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq,'' said Mr. Hussein, before repeating the sentence again.

Mr. Hussein's mood ranged from extreme uncertainty to exasperation, contempt, anger and defiance.

The proceedings took place under tight security. Apache helicopters flew at low altitude over the palace beforehand and American military police officers surrounded the site, but they were replaced by Iraqis for Mr. Hussein's arrival.

Mr. Hussein's trial is expected to take place in the next several months. Eleven of his aides, including some of the most notorious figures of his regime, were arraigned after him.

The White House welcomed the beginning of judicial proceedings against the former dictator and dismissed his protestations.

``Saddam Hussein is going to say all sorts of things,'' the chief White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said in Washington. ``What's important is that justice is being served to Saddam Hussein and his band of oppressors by the Iraqi people in an Iraqi court.

``Saddam Hussein's regime was responsible for the systematic terrorizing, torture, killing and raping of innocent Iraqis. Saddam Hussein's regime was responsible for grave atrocities against the Iraqi people. And this step today begins a process by which the Iraqi people can help bring closure to the dark chapter of their history.''

Pool reporters - responsible for briefing the general news media afterward - covered the event inside the court, and television footage was made public later. John F. Burns of The New York Times served as the pool representative for print publications.

Mr. Hussein often spoke with an unblinking stare, at times raising his chin and using hand gestures, like finger-pointing, that appeared forceful.

In another tape, cleared by the American military, Mr. Hussein was shown - close up - rapidly blinking watery eyes, one of which appeared to twitch at one point. He scratched his head, or stroked his beard thoughtfully, when apparently listening to the judge.

Mr. Hussein, who was captured by American occupation forces, rejected the charges against him, questioned the jurisdiction and challenged the judge, asking him who formed the investigative court.

``It was formed after the coalition authorities came into Iraq,'' the judge, who cannot be publicly named for security reasons, replied.

``Do you represent the coalition?'' Mr. Hussein said.

``No, I represent the Iraqi people,'' said the judge.

Several times during the session, Mr. Hussein tried to interrupt the judge by using the word ``please.''

The charges read against him included the killing of Kurds with chemical weapons in the village of Halabja in March 1988, and the mass deportation and killings of villagers in the Anfal campaign from February to September 1988.

Other charges included the intentional killing of political and religious leaders, including members of the prominent Kurdish Barzani family in 1983.

Mr. Hussein, during the reading of the charges, reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out a pen and yellow, lined paper, on which he jotted notes.

He said he had only heard about the Halabja attack through the news media. He became most worked up over the mention of the Kuwait invasion.

``I am surprised that you charged me with this, being that you are Iraqi and everyone knows Kuwait is part of Iraq,'' Mr. Hussein said. ``In Kuwait, I was protecting the Iraqi people from those mad dogs, who wanted to turn Iraqi women into 10-dinar prostitutes.''

``Do not use that language,'' the judge reprimanded him.

Although he rebutted the Halabja and Kuwait charges, Mr. Hussein offered no dissent to the others. ``I did all of these things as president, so don't strip me of the title,'' he said.

When he was finished, and guards went to take him out of his chair to leave, he said, ``Take it easy, I'm an old man.''

On Wednesday, the new Iraqi government took legal custody of Mr. Hussein, after seven months of imprisonment, and 11 aides. But the United States retains physical custody of Mr. Hussein, and he remains under American guard.

No lawyers were present and Mr. Hussein refused to sign papers that he had been read his rights and that he understood what was going on. A member of Mr. Hussein's defense team, Tim Hughes, said that the lawyers would argue that the trial could not be fair. He told CNN that they would argue that Mr. Hussein has immunity from prosecution because he is still Iraq's president, overthrown by an ``illegitimate invasion.'' Legal representation at today's appearance was denied Mr. Hussein, Mr. Hughes said.

The preliminary charges read today form the basis for a formal indictment, for which the investigative procedure will now begin, the report said.

Earlier statements have said the former Iraqi ruler will be charged with crimes against humanity: the killing and torture of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis during his more than two decades in power.

Told that the court would provide a lawyer for him should he be unable to afford one, Mr. Hussein said:

``Well, according to the Americans I have millions of dollars in Geneva. So I should be able to afford one.''

Christine Hauser contributed reporting from New York for this article.