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Witness Stories Riveting, Vague

Times Staff Writer

An unnamed woman, hidden behind a tan curtain and her voice altered by a computer, gave a harrowing account of torture and sexual abuse at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s security forces, on the fourth day of the Iraqi leader’s trial Tuesday.

Defense attorneys protested that they couldn’t see or understand the woman. The judge kept admonishing her for straying from the subject. Technical glitches impeded her testimony.

But the woman, identified only as Witness A, finally had her say, pouring forth her story of trauma and puncturing Middle East taboos on publicly discussing violations of a woman’s honor.

“They forced me to take off my clothes,” recalled the woman, who said she was 16 when she was detained along with many others from her village, Dujayl. “They kept my legs up. They handcuffed me and started beating me with cables.

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“It wasn’t just one guard,” she said. “It was many guards.”

The woman was among five anonymous witnesses who testified Tuesday, all of them Shiite Muslims from Dujayl. Hussein’s government allegedly unleashed a campaign of retribution on people from the village after a 1982 assassination attempt against him there.

Hussein and seven co-defendants are accused of planning and ordering mass arrests and torture and of killing 146 people from Dujayl.

Tuesday’s proceedings highlighted the tension between the criminal case and the trial’s role as a cathartic forum for airing grievances against the former government.

For many Iraqis, the witnesses’ disturbing, impassioned and graphic accounts of suffering reopened old wounds. The testimony, televised on Iraqi and pan-Arab news channels, captured the attention of a broad spectrum of Iraqis, both those who support the trial and those who oppose it.

But the witnesses’ often vague, rambling accounts of misdeeds and injustices suffered decades ago largely failed to connect the defendants to their alleged crimes. The defense used the witnesses’ hazy memories and impassioned tangents to hammer away at their credibility, pointing out inconsistencies, logical fallacies and political biases.

At one point, Hussein himself -- who studied law in Cairo decades ago -- delivered a short legal lesson, suggesting that his own attorneys had failed to point out sloppiness in the testimony.

“The witness says that around 8 o’clock they took her,” said the former dictator, who along with his co-defendants is allowed to cross-examine witnesses. “No one asked her which day, which month.”

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The defense also continued to use the trial to attempt to score political points.

After Witness A testified about conditions at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where she recalled lice crawling on prisoners’ scalps and using pieces of cardboard as shoes to go to the bathroom outside during the winter, the defense found an opening.

“I agree that things in Abu Ghraib were, until recently, bad, but did they use dogs on you? Did they take photographs?” said one defense attorney, alluding to U.S. troops’ abuse of Iraqi detainees at the prison.

“No,” she replied.

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The trial was scheduled to resume today with testimony from two more witnesses. Near the end of Tuesday’s proceedings, though, Hussein told the judge to “go to hell” and promised that he would not return to what he called an illegal tribunal.

Equipment problems and defense shenanigans often hampered Tuesday’s proceedings.

After defense attorneys complained that they couldn’t hear Witness B, a 74-year-old woman arrested along with her husband and five daughters after the assassination attempt, Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin shut down the television feed, drew the curtains on the viewers’ gallery and had her testify without her voice being obscured.

Witness C, a 35-year-old man, delivered a long account of his family’s ordeal. He described being subjected to electric shock treatment as a youth of no more than 12, watching his relatives being beaten and dumped into a building littered with rotting carcasses in a desolate southern Iraqi prison camp.

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But Najib Nuaimi, a former Qatari justice minister serving on Hussein’s legal team, dismissed the account as irrelevant to the case at hand.

“You say you were unjustly imprisoned,” he said to Witness C during the cross-examination. “Did you see with your eyes any killing that could be called genocide? Did you see war crimes in front of your eyes?” Genocide and war crimes are not among the charges the defendants face.

“I was in prison,” said the witness, his digitally obscured voice bathed in a metallic treble.

“So you didn’t see him committing crimes against humanity?” Nuaimi asked.

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“They tortured our father in front of us,” the witness protested.

“You should have come forward at the time,” Nuaimi said.

Even the lead judge frequently intervened to keep defendants from veering off track. Witness A insisted on praising the Shiite clergy before launching into her account.

Her riveting testimony made for compelling television but less-than-ideal prosecutorial evidence as it veered from her own experiences to stories apparently picked up from relatives or friends. Her account was long on dramatic flourishes and short on detail.

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“They struck my younger brother with cables 50 times,” she said, weeping. “God is great. Oh, my God!”

“Who did that?” the judge asked.

“I don’t know who it was,” she said. “They called him Ahmad.”

Witness D, a former soldier from Dujayl visiting his hometown at the time of the July 8, 1982, attempt on Hussein’s life, also came under scrutiny. Testifying behind a curtain but in his own voice, he produced a document that appeared to be an order of execution against his son, who was 16 when arrested.

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But it quickly emerged that the witness found the paper after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and defense attorneys contended that the document was faked.

“He kept silent all this time until he forged a ... certificate and then he presented it,” said defendant Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, Hussein’s half brother and former intelligence chief who has emerged as the most acid-tongued of the eight men on trial.

“This man said ‘Saddam Hussein took my son,’ ” Hasan continued. “But what does this have to do with [me]?”

The witness shot back angrily: “Why did they take my son? It was based on an order.”

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The last person to testify, an elderly man referred to as Witness E, said he lost four of his sons and 31 other relatives in the retribution campaign. He said he was dragged away, tortured and spent years in detention. He said he saw the body of one of his slain sons in Dujayl’s Baath Party headquarters.

But asked by a defense attorney about specifics, he replied: “I don’t know the date, or the time or the year. All that I know is it was the first day after the attack in Dujayl and that I was fasting that day.”

In addition to challenging the witnesses, Hasan baited chief prosecutor Jaafar Mousawi by referring to him as “comrade,” a salutation common among members of Hussein’s Baath Party.

“I’m not your comrade,” Mousawi snapped, although he did not deny being a party member.

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“Oh yes you are my comrade,” Hasan retorted. “You were with me in the party.”

Though the inconsistencies in testimony and the tumultuous nature of the proceedings have raised questions about whether prosecutors will prove their case, authorities close to the trial have counseled patience.

“You’ve got to look at the full picture when [the trial] is over,” said a Western official knowledgeable about the case. “You’ve got to watch the whole trial and not judge day by day. You can’t look at the first five minutes and say, ‘Wow, this isn’t a good case.’ ”


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