Iraq's long-time dictator Saddam Hussein went on trial Wednesday for mass murder along with seven subordinates. But the deposed strongman, immediately challenged the legitimacy of the court. The trial was subsequently postponed until the end of November.
Deposed President Saddam Hussein refused to give his name to the panel of five Iraqi judges. Instead he questioned the legitimacy of the court, saying he remains the true president of Iraq.
During the three-hour session held under tight security in a specially built courtroom in Baghdad, the court charged Saddam with ordering the mass murder of 140 villagers in Dujail, north of Baghdad, after a failed assassination attempt 23 years ago. He was also charged with the imprisonment, torture, and forced deportation of hundreds of other villagers.
If convicted, he and his seven subordinates could face the death penalty.
Saddam pleaded not guilty to charges and the court recessed for six weeks, granting his lawyers' request for more time to prepare the defense.
This is the first of what are expected to be several trials of senior Iraqi officials for atrocities during the Saddam regime in which tens of thousands of people died.
Legal experts say the former leader could also be tried for the gassing of 5,000 Kurds in 1988, the deaths of thousands of Shiites following an uprising in 1991, and hundreds of thousands of deaths during the Iran-Iraq war. They say the Dujail incident is well documented and therefore could help establish a model for subsequent trials.
Human-rights organizations have voiced concerns, saying some of the rules governing the trial do not meet international standards. They say the defense must not be restricted and guilt must be proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Iraqi officials and their international advisers say the trial will be fair.
Analysts in the region also fear the trial will aggravate tensions between the Sunni-Arab group, which dominated government under Saddam, and the Shiite-Arab and Kurdish groups that suffered under the regime, but gained power in elections following its overthrow.