BAGHDAD, Iraq – A 16-year-old girl envied a donkey’s freedom. Men were beaten for complaining of hunger. Detainees were forced to run on wet surfaces and beaten with hoses when they fell.
For decades, Iraqis knew or suspected what it was like to run afoul of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
This week, they heard it firsthand from survivors. Nine witnesses offered gripping testimony of life under Hussein, the first Arab leader ever put on trial. The trial was recessed on Wednesday until Dec. 21.
As the drama played out on national television, the witnesses described random cruelty and sadistic treatment in gruesome detail, including the recollections of a woman known only as Witness A to protect her identity.
Her voice breaking with emotion, she told the court of beatings and electric shocks by the former president’s agents when she was only 16 years old. Witness A strongly suggested she had been raped, but did not say so outright.
The woman also recalled her extreme sadness in captivity, saying she stared from the window of a prison bus 20 years ago and envied a donkey wandering free.
“I swear to God, I saw a donkey and I said: ‘Oh God, how I envy him for his freedom. This donkey is lucky. He enjoys complete freedom while we human beings are being moved from prison to a prison.’”
Hussein and seven co-defendants have been accused of killing more than 140 Shiites in the town of Dujail north of Baghdad after a 1982 attempt on his life. They could be hanged if convicted.
For the witnesses, the trial offered an opportunity denied to other Iraqis who suffered under Saddam’s rule: to sit in the same room with the ousted leader and confront him with his alleged crimes. Their stories spoke of lives wrecked, families devastated by the loss of loved ones, death under torture, honors violated and hunger bordering on starvation.
Their testimony was often emotional, interrupted by moments of anger, tears or heart-wrenching pleas for God to lend them support.
“Can a tragedy be forgotten?” fired back one witness when a defense lawyer questioned whether someone could remember details of injustices suffered as a child.
A man whose name also was not made public told of interrogators placing a pair of clips on his ears. He was told he had been hooked up to a lie detector that would send an electric shock through his body every time he failed to tell the truth.
The first jolt came when he replied “I don’t know” to the first question, he said, and the torture continued for 30 minutes.
The same witness recalled a detainee who attended the same school but suffered brain damage as a result of the torture in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad.
“They made us run on a wet surface, and when we fell they beat us with hoses,” he said.
“It would have been better if they had shot us all that day rather than take a single one from the women of Dujail,” said Ahmed Hassan Mohammed, one of two witnesses so far who agreed to testify in court without hiding his identity. “They threatened male detainees that they will rape their sisters or wives,” he said Monday.
In the five sessions since the trial opened Oct. 19, Hussein appeared unperturbed by the testimony. He lectured chief judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin on patriotism and due process, and he admonished witnesses. He spoke of himself in the regal third person, often reminding the audience that in his mind he was still the president of Iraq.
Another witness, his identity withheld from the public but revealed to the defendants and their defense attorneys, spoke Wednesday of a fellow detainee whose hunger was so intense that he pounded on the door to summon a guard.
“We have reached a level of hunger that we should either be given more food or be killed,” he quoted the detainee as telling the guard.
The guard then led the prisoner out of the room where he and scores of others were being held, beat him senseless and threw him back inside.
Later at Abu Ghraib, the same witness recounted, the guards would occasionally bring out detainees at night under the pretext of offering them medical care.
“Some protested that they did not need any treatment, but the guards insisted,” he said. “If you say you have a toothache, they will ask you to show them the tooth and they will punch you right there,” he said.