Monday, March 06, 2006

Seeing Saddam

I always wanted to see Saddam Hussein in person but never thought it will be the way it happened this week.
Early in the morning we arrived at the court building where the former president is being tried. We waited and waited until the trial session started later than usual at about 2 p.m.
We entered the court room and waited again but not much. Few minutes later the judges came in so we all stood up until chief judge Raouf Abdul-Rahman waved for everyone present to sit down.
"Call the defendants," Abdul-Rahman told a man sitting at the back of the room.
The man, wearing a brown suit, immediately stood up and started calling names written on a piece of paper he held in his right hand. "Defendant Saddam Hussein al-Majid."
My eyes were glued to a door where a colleague told me the defendants will come from. The door opened and Saddam appeared in his elegant black suit being escorted by two guards. As I looked in shock at the 69-year-old man walk to his seat, my friend Nadra, who was sitting next to me, said "Ohhhhh. Look at Saddam."
I was stunned for few seconds not believing that who I am seeing is Saddam who most Iraqis did not dare mention his name with saying "Mr. President."
The former president was escorted to his seat in the font row where eight chairs were placed for the defendants on trial in the case of Dujail, a town north of Baghdad where Saddam escaped an assassination attempt in July 1982 when gunmen opened fire at his convoy during a visit.
Saddam and his co-defendants are on trial for killing 148 people after the assassination attempt.
The man called the defendants one after the other. Former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan was the seventh to enter the room and the last to join the team was Saddam's half brother Barzan Ibrahim.
Taha Yassin Ramadan looked very much different compared with the time I saw him in December 2002 in Baghdad's famous Rashid Hotel. Today he was wearing a brown gown and an Arab head dress. Then he was in his olive green military uniform surrounded by many guards.
What a world I told my self.
The session started with the judges saying that the court has rejected a demand by the defense team to remove Chief Judge Abdul-Rahman and Prosecutor-General Jaafar al-Moussawi. Saddam's two lawyers, Khalil al-Dulaimi and Khamees al-Obeidi stood up and asked to appeal the rule. They handed a paper then both walked out.
Saddam did not speak much that day. Most of the time he was sitting in his place sometimes looking at the lawyers or judges or prosecutors. A copy of the holy Quran was in his right hand all the time.
At one point he stood up and shouted at the prosecutor saying "I am still the president of Iraq according to the constitution."
In the next two or three hours I kept watching Saddam and running out of the room every now and then to the press office to dictate news to the office sine what was aired on television was delayed by 20 minutes. As I was returning from my last dictation, I saw the journalists leaving the press room. "It has been adjourned until tomorrow," Nadra said.
The next morning the trial started much earlier but the defendants spoke more that day. Barzan Ibrahim, who loves to talk, spoke for about 15 minutes and when the judge asked him if he has more to say, the man answered in surprise: "I haven't started yet." The moment Barzan said that most of the people in the room burst into laughter so did the judge and the defense team.
In the afternoon the judge said "the session is adjourned until March 12."
Saddam stood up raising his hand and saying "I want to say something." The judge answered that the session has been adjourned. Seconds later he told him to go ahead.
Saddam walked to the microphone and started talking.
He shocked everyone when he said as a head of state he takes the whole responsibility for what happened in Dujail.
He then asked the judge if it is wrong for a president to refer those who tried to assassinate him to court. Saddam said that he ordered orchards be destroyed in Dujail but added that he compensated the owners.
Saddam finished speaking and went back to his seat.
The judge adjourned the case until March 12 and we all rushed to the press center to urgent what Saddam said.
Working as a journalist for 14 years, I covered many trials from trials of Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt to also covering the first trial in an Iraqi court after the fall of Saddam's regime.
I also covered a trial of Osama bin Laden's top aide Ayman al-Zawahiri in Cairo when he was sentenced to death in absentia in 1998.
But Saddam's trial is a completely different story.
Sitting in the court room and looking at what was going on I felt that I was watching history being made.

Bassem Mroue
Baghdad, Iraq.
March 5, 2006.


At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Bassem
I have been reading your amazingly great stories and also your personal writings in this blog.
I enjoy them all and admire you and also pray for safety in this dangerous area for coverage.
May god help you and bless you and protect you there Inshaallah.
all the best, regards and wishes

At 10:29 PM, Anonymous mazin y. said...

Dear sir :
I do believe with what you had said ,really it is a story that differ comprehensivley and completly in all its details and background than other trials,it is a historical one.But let me say something I guess it is essential one in that aspect which is the views of other presidents in this case;therefore to have a logic comments you should take the points of views of Saddams' collegues as a kings or leaders of other countries,better than the comments of normal people.thanks for your hard efforts in writing such story.sincerely yours/Mazin

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