BAGHDAD, Iraq -- On his first day in charge of the courtroom, the judge watched the entire defense team walk out in protest. He then argued loudly with the main defendant before throwing him out.
In most other courtrooms, such goings-on would have raised eyebrows. But in the genocide trial of Saddam Hussein and six co-defendants, theatrics and shenanigans have become par for the course.
Yesterday, Judge Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa replaced Judge Abdullah Amiri, who had been accused by the prosecution of favoring the defense. The Iraqi government removed Amiri as head judge late Tuesday.
The proceedings had barely gotten under way when al-Khalifa faced his first confrontation. Badie Aref, a defense attorney, stood up to protest. "I want to withdraw from this court," he said.
He was followed by Wadoud Fawsi, another defense lawyer, who got up to read a statement on behalf of the defense team. "The government is interfering in this trial and impacting its credibility," Fawsi said. "Since we doubt the credibility of this court, we decided to withdraw."
Al-Khalifa told them, "you can go ahead," and the entire defense team walked out. The judge then called in five court-appointed lawyers to represent the defendants, but Hussein stood up to complain about the change.
'You should listen'
"You do not have the right to speak," the judge said sternly. Hussein shouted back, "You should listen to my opinion," as he banged on the rail in front of him.
"I am the presiding judge, and I will decide who to listen to," al-Khalifa replied.
Guards then escorted Hussein out of the courtroom as the judge yelled: "Take him out, take him out."
The other defendants, including Hussein's cousin, Ali Hassan Majid, said they wanted to follow the former president out the door but the judge refused their exit.
Kurdish villagers afterward testified about chemical attacks at the heart of this trial. The defendants are accused of orchestrating a brutal military offensive known as the Anfal campaign that killed as many as 100,000 Kurds in northern Iraq during the late 1980s.
The Anfal case has been as dramatic as a previous trial in which Saddam and seven co-defendants were charged with killing 182 Shiite villagers from the town of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt against him there. A verdict in that case is expected next month.
Judges were reshuffled during those proceedings as well after the head jurist resigned, citing "pressure."
'Not a dictator'
Judge Amiri, a Shiite Muslim, drew the ire of Kurdish and Shiite politicians last week when he said the former president was "not a dictator" during an exchange with Saddam in court. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet transferred Amiri to a new post, with Iraq's Supreme Judiciary Council, in order to preserve the neutrality of the tribunal hearing Saddam's case, said government spokesman Ali Dabbagh in a statement.
Al-Khalifa is also a Shiite, born in the south and with experience as a judge during Hussein's reign.
A U.S. official close to the court said that the switch of judges was not yet final. Al-Khalifa is the ranking member on a five-judge panel in the courtroom. The official, who requested anonymity, said the change of judges still has to be approved by Iraq's Presidential Council, despite earlier reports that President Jalal Talabani had given his blessing. The panel then votes on who gets to sit on the top bench, the official said.
"It's clear that this is a very-high-profile, high-pressure, difficult job to do," the official said.
Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.