Editor's note: Richard Engel filed this post Wednesday from Baghdad, but because of technical difficulties, I am just posting it now. He was in the courtroom for Day 1 of Saddam Hussein's trial in Baghdad.
Saddam sat laughing. When his former vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan followed his lead and declined to give his name to the court (their way of slapping it in the face) Saddam said, "Afiya! Afiya!' -- the Iraqi equivalent of 'good for you!' It was a favorite phrase when he was president. All Iraqis know Saddam for it.
Wednesday, it was part of Saddam's running commentary on the trial he clearly disdains. On display was his demeanor as president: smug, patronizing and extremely confident. When the chief judge tried to show a CD with images of documents the prosecution says incriminate Saddam (including an approval for a death sentence supposedly with Saddam's signature), Saddam interrupted. "Recordings are not legal under Iraqi law," he said. It turned out the court never was able to get the video player to work, one of many technical problems that plagued the opening day.
The courtroom was in the former Baath Party headquarters, a huge building with polished marble floors and giant chandeliers. (A building engineer told me Saddam paid a million dollars for the single chandelier that covered the domed ceiling where media were allowed to file reports.) The toilets didn't't flush, the phones kept dropping out, the audio in the courtroom was often inaudible. "It's a plane being built in the air," said one of the trial's organizers.
More importantly, however, is how Iraqis perceive the trial. It will take time for many to digest it. One of our translators started crying as she transcribed the tapes coming into our bureau. I don't think she knew exactly why, it just felt sad, yet nostalgic too, upsetting in a non-specific yet all-encompassing way like flu symptoms.
The trial is set to resume on November 28. Look for the defense lawyers to reach out to the media (in particular Arab TV) before then to try to win this trial in the court of public opinion. I already saw the lawyers, who until now have been shy about appearing on camera, warming up to Arab reporters, exchanging business cards, preparing for interviews.