BAGHDAD (Reuters)–Saddam Hussein appeared before an Iraqi judge as Iraq’s newly sovereign government took the first step towards bringing him to justice–and a possible death penalty–for 35 years of killing and torture. "Today at 10:15 a.m. the Republic of Iraq assumed legal custody of Saddam Hussein," said a terse statement from interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s office on Wednesday.
The deposed dictator and 11 of his lieutenants were turned over to face Iraqi justice nearly 15 months after US-led forces overthrew him. They will stay under US military guard.
"Saddam said ‘Good morning’ and asked if he could ask some questions," said Salem Chalabi–the US-trained lawyer leading the work of a tribunal set up to try the former president.
"He was told he should wait until tomorrow," Chalabi told Reuters after attending the formalities in which Saddam and 11 of his former lieutenants were turned over to Iraqi justice.
Chalabi–who has received death threats since he began work on the tribunal–said the 67-year-old Saddam looked in good health and had sat in a chair during the closed proceedings.
Saddam’s former aides appeared nervous or hostile and one of them–Ali Hassan al-Majid–known as Chemical Ali for his role in using chemical weapons–was shaking.
Saddam–accused by Iraqis of ordering the killing and torture of thousands of people during 35 years of Baathist rule–had been held as a prisoner of war since US forces found him hiding in a hole near his hometown of Tikrit on December 13.
He will now be subject to Iraqi criminal law–rather than a POW protected by the Geneva Conventions. His trial is likely to be several months away. Iraq’s national security adviser said it would be broadcast live on television.
Iraq’s president was quoted as saying the death penalty–suspended during the US-led occupation–would be reinstated and the national security adviser said it could apply to Saddam.
The fallen leader will be charged with crimes against humanity for a 1988 gas massacre of Kurds–the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war–according to Chalabi.
"Tomorrow’s proceedings will mark the start of his trial," said an official in Allawi’s office.
French lawyer Emmanuel Ludot–one of a 20-strong team appointed by Saddam’s wife to represent him–said the former president would refuse to acknowledge any court or any judge.
"It will be a court of vengeance–a settling of scores," Ludot told France Info radio–saying any judge sitting in the court would be under pressure to find Saddam guilty.
Among others to be handed over were Former Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz and three of Saddam’s half-brothers.
Those former officials and others among the 55 most wanted Iraqis on a US list are seen as witnesses who could help prove a chain of command linking Saddam to crimes against humanity.
Government offices were shut on Wednesday for a new national holiday declared to mark Monday’s transfer of sovereignty to the interim government from US-British occupation authorities.