Verdict Closes a Grim Trial Full of Theatrics

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The documents spoke for themselves. Beginning in February, lawyers prosecuting Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity began showing a series of papers that silenced even Hussein and his raucous defense attorneys and co-defendants.

There was a memo dated June 16, 1984, with Hussein's signature approving the death sentences of 148 Iraqi Shi'ites from Dujail, where gunmen tried to kill Hussein in 1982 with an attack on his motorcade.  There were the death certificates of some 100 Dujail villagers whose families were sent to a desert prison.  Some of the documents were hand written, like the lists showing vehicles that carried 399 detainees from a Baghdad jail to what amounted to a concentration camp in southern Iraq in 1984. Some of the prisoners sent to the camp were children below the age of 10; one was a three-month-old baby girl. The documents, displayed on projectors for the courtroom, probably did more to break Hussein's defiance than anything to date in the trial, which began in October of 2005.

In the early days of the proceedings, Hussein was at turns hostile, glib and dismissive toward the court as prosecutors pressed their case against him for the systematic brutalization of Dujail following the assasination attempt. There were of course the periodic outbursts from Saddam, his lawyers and his co-defendants, chiefly Hussein's half brother Barzan Ibrahim.  But as often as not the proceedings in the early part of the trial went forward quietly, with Hussein acting bored. He'd sit for long stretches with his head resting on one of his hands. Sometimes, as court was in session, he'd zone out altogether. At least once he wrote some bad poetry while proceedings went on, reading the verses he penned aloud during one of the breaks.

"The truth is our characteristic and so we are. Lying is their characteristic. Iraq's mountains, wildernesses and plains will be our witness We help the weak but when we strike, we strike the elite."

Not even the horrific testimony of victims seemed to affect him. One after another, people who'd been tortured by Hussein's henchmen offered stories of victims being hung from their feet and given electric shocks.  In one session, Hussein nearly shouted down the first witness who appeared in court to detail the atrocities. 

"Do not interrupt me, son," Hussein hollered at the witness, claiming the floor for one of his diatribes amid an angry exchange between the two.  The following day three women recounted further stories of horrors overseen by Hussein's men.  By all accounts it was gripping testimony — except of course to Hussein.  When the judge announced that proceedings would continue the next day, Hussein said he was exhausted and told the judge to "go to hell."

But as the documents stacked up, Hussein's bluster faded. He seemed to take on a growing sense of resignation about his fate until, finally, he snapped. Without warning, Hussein rose March 1 and offered a statement in which he essentially admitted everything and urged the court to hold him responsible.

"Why are you trying other people?" Hussein said. "The head of state is here, so try him, and let the others go."

Throughout the trial, a group of American lawyers has worked closely with the court and monitored the proceedings. Hussein's admissions, in open court, stunned them.

"He took a swan dive onto the sword," said one of the U.S. attorneys, who asked not to be named.

Hussein was never really the same in court after that. For the remainder of the trial, Hussein was generally more subdued, realizing no doubt the fate closing in on him. Even Hussein's outburst today, as the judge sentenced him to death, was much paler than the rages he's shown the court before.

"Our enemies are the enemies of humanity!" Hussein shouted. "Damnation for the damned people! Long live the great Iraqi people!"

But in some ways it was perhaps the weakest, most unconvincing performance offered by Hussein, who remains on trial in another case despite today's sentence.  Hussein couldn't even bring himself to stand up to hear the sentence read, initially refusing the judge's order to rise.

"No, I'll be sitting," Hussein said, slumping in his chair. With a signal from the judge, guards hauled Hussein to his feet by the elbows.

"There's no use, Saddam," the judge said.