Tariq Aziz on trial, bishop of Kirkuk: “justice, but in respect of man”

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Baghdad (AsiaNews) – “Justice, but in respect for human rights and of the dignity of the person, against any capital sentence”, is the appeal that the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, Louis Sako, issued today at the opening of the trial, with risk of the death penalty, against former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, the only Christian among the leadership of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The international public face of the dictatorship of the rais, Aziz is accused of executing 42 merchants in 1992, guilty of having speculated on food prices in violation of state controls. The former foreign minister, a Chaldean Christian, is often cited as proof of the favour that Christians enjoyed under Saddam. “Nothing could be more false”, say some Chaldean Iraqi refugees in Italy. Born to a Chaldean family near Mosul in 1936, Tariq Aziz always put his religious affiliation in second place, presenting himself first of all as an Iraqi Arab and a member of the Baath party. He changed his original name, Michael Yohanna, for less compromising one. He “did not bat an eye” at the nationalisation of the Christian schools, nor at the provision for the obligatory teaching of the Qur’an.

In an interview with AsiaNews in 2003, Jean Benjamin Sleiman, archbishop of Baghdad for the Latin Catholics, explained that “Tariq Aziz was not prime minister because he was Christian, but because he was a great childhood friend of Saddam. He had participated in several massacres with him in their first years of action, and had contributed to the Baath party’s rise to power”. The archbishop also recalled that “as a Christian minority, we often obtained concessions not from Aziz, but from other Muslim ministers”.

It is the first time since he surrendered to U.S. forces in April of 2003 that Aziz, aged 72, is responding to the accusations against him. His lawyer calls the accusations “unfounded”. The trial will be presided over by Kurdish judge Rauf Rasheed Abdel, the same one who pronounced the death sentence against Saddam Hussein. Also facing charges together with Aziz are seven other top officials of the former regime, including Saddam’s stepbrother Watban Ibrahim Al Hassan and “chemical Ali”, already condemned to death in June for his role in the Anfal campaign in the 1980’s, in which tens of thousands of Kurds were killed.