BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ The new chief judge in the Saddam Hussein genocide trial threw the former Iraqi president out of court Wednesday, and his lawyers stormed out in protest.
A leading human rights group charged the government's decision to replace the former chief judge, Abdullah al-Amiri, threatens the independence of the troubled tribunal.
Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa presided Wednesday after the government removed al-Amiri, who angered Kurds by declaring last week that Saddam was ``not a dictator.''
The ousted president and seven others are on trial for the Operation Anfal crackdown on Kurdish rebels in the late 1980s. The prosecution says about 180,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed.
Defense lawyers immediately questioned the decision to replace al-Amiri.
``We don't expect this court established under the occupation authorities to be fair so we have decided to withdraw from this trial,'' defense lawyer Wadoud Fawzi told the court.
``The decision to sack the judge on the orders of the government shows that this trial lacks the standards of a fair trial,'' Fawzi said.
Al-Khalifa replied that replacing the chief judge was an ``administrative matter'' and if the lawyers walked out, the court would appoint new ones.
That prompted an outburst from Saddam, who pointed his finger at the judge, pounded his fist on the podium and thundered: ``You must deal with us as the law dictates.''
Al-Khalifa ordered Saddam to stop talking and when he refused, he ordered him escorted from the courtroom.
``Your father was in the security and he went on working as a sergeant in the security (forces) until the fall of Baghdad'' in 2003, Saddam shouted.
Al-Khalifa shot back: ``I challenge you in front of the public if this is the case.''
Saddam's cousin ``Chemical'' Ali al-Majid told the judge that he too rejected court-appointed lawyers.
``I'll stay (in court), but I'll decline to say anything or defend myself and I'll gladly accept any verdict, even if it's the death penalty,'' he said.
In New York, Human Rights Watch said it was concerned about al-Amiri's removal.
``This appears to be improper interference in the independence of the tribunal, and may greatly damage the court,'' the group said in a statement signed by Richard Dicker, director of its International Justice Program.
Similar criticism was raised in Saddam's other trial for the deaths of Shiite Muslims in the town of Dujail following an assassination attempt against him in 1982.
The first chief judge in that trial resigned after Shiite politicians accused him of allowing Saddam to turn the trial into a forum for political statements.
A verdict in the Dujail case is due next month, and Saddam could face the death penalty if convicted.
With Saddam gone from the courtroom, the judges heard from five Kurdish witnesses Wednesday before recessing until next week.
Ismat Abdel-Qadir, 74, recalled a March 1987 attack on her northern village, Sowsinan, which she said was ``burned down'' by Iraqi warplanes.
``We knew it was a chemical attack because after the warplanes bombarded the village, something smelled like rotten apples,'' she said, wearing an embroidered black dress and a white headscarf.
Another witness, shepherd Ahmed Qadir, 39, testified that his village, Goushti, was hit with chemicals in March 1988.
``I saw heavy smoke coming,'' he said, recalling that he was near the village when the chemicals struck. On reaching the village, he also detected a rotten apple smell.
Qadir said he lost 12 relatives, including two sisters, their husbands and children. He said the attack turned their bodies and faces ``black from burns.''
Gharib Qadir, 29, said he spent six months at a detention center in 1988 _ as an 11-year-old boy. He said he recalled an average of 10 people dying every day from disease and torture.
``One day, guards took my father,'' he said somberly. ``After 15 minutes, they brought his dead body back to us and asked us to bury him. There was a red (bruise) on his forehead.''