Then the session proceeded without the ex-Iraqi president. Saddam's co-defendants and his lawyers were present in the courtroom when Chief Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin convened the session at 3 p.m., about four hours late.
The judge, under pressure to appear fair but keep the trial moving, said the former dictator would be kept informed of what was happening in the courtroom. CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier reports that under Iraqi law, Saddam could sit out the rest of the trial if he chooses, but his defense team knows the Iraqi government really needs him present for the trial to be considered legitimate in the court of public opinion. The defense has used his presence as a bargaining chip, and Wednesday court officials discussed improving security for them and their families — something the defense has talked about for weeks.
The trial later adjourned until Dec. 21.
"The adjournment of the trial will give the judges the time to respond to written motions regarding the court's legitimacy and to address the issues of security," said CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk. "The delay will allow security forces to focus on the mid-December elections."
In other developments:
Al-Jazeera said Wednesday that the kidnappers of four Christian peace activists have extended their deadline by two days for the U.S. and British governments to meet their demand to release all prisoners.
The original deadline set by the Swords of Righteousness was Thursday but has been reset until Saturday, the station said.
In all seven Western hostages have been taken captive in the past two weeks, including what appears to be another American, identified as Ronald Shulz.
Saddam will be told about the testimony of two witnesses Wednesday. Both were hidden behind a curtain around the witness box, their voices altered to protect their identities. They talked of being detained, beaten and tortured and imprisoned at Abu Ghraib prison, after an assassination attempt on Saddam in Dujail in 1982.
During the session, Saddam's half brother Barazan Ibrahim, head of Iraqi intelligence during the Dujail incident, offered his own complaints, telling the court that he had spent more than eight months in solitary confinement in a windowless facility without air conditioning, electricity or running water.
"I couldn't tell if it was day or night," he said.
"We are prisoners of the wealthiest and most powerful nation, yet, since four months ago, they are giving me six cigarettes a day from the worst brands."
Ibrahim sought to distance himself from the Dujail events, saying that his position as head of intelligence then was a "political post," and that the treatment of prisoners was not the responsibility of the security services.
"Once prisoners are handed over to prisons, they are the responsibility of the department of social affairs," he said. "I am not a jailer I am a political official."
The court also heard from a male witness who testified behind a beige curtain to conceal his identity. He told of being arrested after the assassination attempt and being taken to the local Baath Party headquarters, where he found people "screaming because of the beatings."
The witness said Ibrahim was present.
"When my turn came, the investigator asked me my name and he turned to Barazan and asked him, `What we shall do with him?"' the witness said. "Barazan replied: `Take him. He might be useful.' We were almost dead because of the beatings."
When questioned by Amin, however, the witness said he was blindfolded at the time and thought Ibrahim was present because other prisoners told him so.
A second witness, whose identity was also concealed, said he and his entire family were rounded up from their Dujail home and imprisoned for four years.
"When they came to take us, they said we will be back in 10 minutes," he recounted. "It took four years."
He said that while in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, he and other detainees were subjected to torture, sleep deprivation and beatings with water hoses.
Saddam complained loudly Tuesday that he and his co-defendants were exhausted, and had no clean clothes to wear. He said he and the seven other co-defendants had been mistreated by the "unjust court," and that he would not return on Wednesday.
Dozier reports that Saddam's lawyers think he can beat the charges, but Saddam is also going for a different sort of verdict. He wants to show his Iraqi followers and many across the Arab world that he's not the bewildered man that the U.S. troops pulled out of a spider hole in Tikrit. Rather, he wants to show he's the man who took on the world's greatest superpower twice and is still fighting, Dozier says.
His half-brother and codefendant Barazan Ibrahim Wednesday continued the complaints about their treatment.
He said that here you have one of the richest countries in the world, but only after four months were they allowed cigarettes — and then they were some of the worst cigarettes.
The food was so bad that in two months, he lost 70kg. "No one can eat it," he said.
He said he spent 8-9 months in a 6- by 6-foot cell where he couldn't even lie down, with no windows, no electricity, no ventilation, no shower, and no running water.
"With or without Saddam Hussein in the courtroom, the witness testimony in international tribunals is the most electrifying and vital part of the prosecution," said Falk, "because it provides the evidence of the crimes, in this case, torture, rape, forced expulsion and crimes against humanity."
Throughout the trial, which began Oct. 19, Saddam has repeatedly staged confrontations with the court and attempted to take control of the proceedings with dramatic rhetorical flourishes.