Three of Saddam Hussein's co-defendants testified for the first time on Sunday, denying any role in the deaths and arrests of Shia in the 1980s.

The three, Mizhar Abd Allah Al-Ruwayyid, his father Abd Allah Al-Ruwayyid and Ali Daih Ali - former officials in Saddam's ruling Baath party - stood one-by-one to be directly questioned by the chief judge and prosecutors about the crackdown launched against the town of Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam.

Rauf Abd al-Rahman, the chief judge, asked each defendant to relate to the court what he was doing on the day of the assassination attempt against Saddam, whose motorcade was fired on as he visited Dujail on 8 July 1982.

Prosecutors also questioned each of the three in turn.

Mizhar Al-Ruwayyid, the first to appear, said he was working as a telephone operator and that he held only a low-level position in the Baath party at the time.

"I have no relation with the 8 July incident, and I was not involved in any detentions that followed," he said.

The elder Al-Ruwayyid told the judge he saw fellow defendant Barzan Ibrahim, Saddam's half-brother and the head of intelligence at the time, in Dujail after the shooting.

But he, too, denied any role in the crackdown that followed.

"I have never detained people. I cannot even harm an insect," he said.

Ali, the second to testify, said he was in Baghdad the day of the shooting, though he returned to Dujail later in the day.

"My foot did not step into any house in Dujail. We did not harm the people of Dujail and we did not write reports about them," he insisted.

Turn to testify

Saddam, the former Iraqi president, was not in court on Sunday as he waited his turn to testify.

Saddam was not in court as he
waited his turn to testify

Saddam and seven others are charged with crimes against humanity in connection with the killings of 148 men from Dujail, after an attempt on his life in the mainly Shia town in 1982.

Each defendant will get the opportunity to rebut the charges in the next few days and will not appear in court until it is their turn to testify.

It was not clear when Saddam was scheduled to appear.

Later in the trial, the prosecution will be able to bring more evidence if it wishes, and defendants will have a further chance to make their case.
   
Hearings are expected to last several days this week, followed by a probable adjournment of several weeks for the court to prepare more specific charge sheets.
   
All defence lawyers were present at Sunday's hearing, including Ramsey Clark, a former US attorney-general, who said last week that hanging Saddam would only deepen sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq.