BAGHDAD,Iraq -- The trial of Saddam Hussein saw a moment of high drama yesterday when the judge read statements from four defense witnesses recanting their testimony and swearing that the former Iraqi leader's defense team had bribed them to lie in court.
Khalil Dulaimi, one of the lead defense attorneys, paid hundreds of dollars and promised lifelong salaries to the witnesses in exchange for false statements favorable to the defense, the statements said.
During clandestine meetings in Syria and in Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, Dulaimi and others conspired with the witnesses, telling them what to say in court, according to the statements.
None of the four witnesses was named or appeared in court. The defense quickly charged that they had been intimidated by the judge and prosecution to change their testimony.
Hussein and seven co-defendants are accused of crimes against humanity in the brutal crackdown on the Shiite Muslim town of Dujail after an assassination attempt on the Iraqi president there in 1982. The defendants are accused of participating in the torture and killing of 148 villagers.
In recent weeks, the defense team had questioned the integrity of chief prosecutor Jaafar al-Mousawi, saying that he had appeared in Dujail two years ago at an anniversary celebration marking the attempt on Hussein's life. But that strategy appeared to backfire yesterday amid the new testimony.
"I was promised that they will secure a job for me in Syria, and that if I would not give my testimony, they would kill my family," the first witness said in the statement. Dulaimi told the witness to testify in court that he had seen al-Mousawi in Dujail and that the prosecutor had tried to bribe him, the statement said. The witness also said that he was given $500 and told he would not be committing perjury because the tribunal has no authority.
The second witness said his son had been kidnapped. He recounted that members of the defense team told him: "You have three days to decide whether to testify or not; otherwise, we'll kill your youngest son."
Among other things, he said, he was asked to say that he had seen al-Mousawi in Dujail at the 2004 celebration. "They then made a rehearsal of that testimony so I would not forget it," the witness said in the statement.
The third witness said the defense team had rented an apartment for him in Syria where Dulaimi visited. The witness alleged that the defense lawyer gave him money and promised a meeting with Hussein and the former leader's wife. He said he was promised a way out of Iraq and a lifelong salary if he would place al-Mousawi at the assassination anniversary.
"They told us we had to say inside the court that this man is Mousawi," he said.
The witness said Dulaimi gave him a list of names of 21 Dujail victims and told him to testify in court that they were still alive.
The fourth witness said he met Dulaimi in Syria and was given $500. He was given room and board, and told not to return to Baghdad until it was time to testify, he said. He said he was also given a list of victims' names and told to say that they were still alive, adding: "I don't know for sure that they are still living."
Hussein looked despondent during the reading, resting his chin in his hands.
Dulaimi protested afterward: "We did not reach out to anybody."
Hussein stood and argued that the changed testimony was taking place in "an atmosphere of threats."
Chief Judge Raouf Abdel Rahman said the witnesses' statements "prove that they gave false testimony."
The judge had ordered the arrest of several witnesses after they gave contradictory testimony late last month. The witnesses were held for four days while the court investigated.
The defense witnesses had said previously that al-Mousawi tried to bribe them to testify against Hussein. The defense had provided a photograph allegedly showing the prosecutor at the Dujail event. However, al-Mousawi later brought a double to court who testified that he, not the prosecutor, had attended the festivities.
The new allegations were not the only surprises yesterday. An American attorney appeared in court for the defense, criticizing the proceedings.
"As I'm sure any experienced judge will know, it is highly improper for anyone other than the defense lawyers to speak to the defense witnesses," said Curtis Doebbler, responding to the court's investigation of the witnesses. "We find it quite unfortunate that anybody is speaking with them, even if they are authorized by the court, when it is not in open court."
Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.