Tariq Aziz, Saddam-era official, gets 15-year term

8625lojhgf.jpgBy KIM GAMEL –

BAGHDAD (AP) — For years he was the urbane, cigar-smoking face of Saddam Hussein’s regime, who argued his boss’ case in the international corridors of power.

Tariq Aziz, 72, now faces 15 years in prison for crimes against humanity in the 1992 execution of Iraqi merchants — his first conviction for his role in the ousted regime. The verdict came just over a week after Aziz was acquitted in a separate case.

The silver-haired former foreign minister, deputy prime minister and Saddam insider blinked frequently Wednesday as the judge read the verdict — guilty on four counts of crimes against humanity including complicity in murder and torture.

Aziz, wearing a blue jacket, black shirt and his trademark thick, black-rimmed glasses, stood silently. When the judge finished, Aziz quietly asked if he could sit down. The request was granted.

He sat with his eyes shut as other defendants rose to hear their sentences.

Two of Saddam’s half brothers, former Interior Minister Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan and director of public security Sabawi Ibrahim, were sentenced to death in the merchants’ case.

Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan “Chemical Ali” al-Majid, who already faces three death sentences from previous cases, also got a 15-year prison sentence.

Three other defendants were sentenced to life in prison, 15 years and six years. Former Central Bank Gov. Issam Rashid Hweish was acquitted for lack of evidence.

The defendants were accused of involvement in the July 1992 roundup of 42 merchants accused by Saddam of being behind a sharp increase in food prices when the country was suffering hardships under sanctions.

The merchants were arrested over two days in Baghdad’s wholesale markets and charged with manipulating food supplies to drive up prices. They were executed hours later after a quick trial.

Crimes against humanity is a charge under international law which refers to offenses so odious that they constitute an attack on human dignity. The charge is not isolated to specific events but is part of a pattern of atrocities by a state.

Prosecutors had argued that Aziz was complicit because he was a member of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council that rubber-stamped Saddam’s decisions.

After hearing his death sentence, Ibrahim shouted “Long live Iraq” and “Down with the occupier.”

“I am proud to be one of Iraq’s martyrs and to join the martyr Saddam Hussein,” he cried.

But Aziz, a fluent English-speaker and the only Christian in Saddam’s mostly Sunni Muslim inner circle, displayed none of the bravado or self assurance that he showed when representing Iraq at the United Nations and world capitals.

Instead, it was left to his lawyer and relatives to speak out on his behalf.

Defense attorney Badee Izzat Aref said he would appeal and that Aziz was traveling in Europe when the executions occurred.

“My client had no role in the execution of the traders. He spent most of his time on diplomatic missions outside Iraq and he was removed from domestic issues.”

“This is an unjust ruling, and my father was dragged into this case,” his eldest son, Ziad, said in a telephone interview from Amman, Jordan. “I cannot add more.”

But Saddam opponents hailed the sentence.

“Tariq Aziz is one of the prominent figures of the old regime,” said Jalaluddin al-Saghir, a prominent Shiite cleric and lawmaker. “He is one of the big criminals who contributed to bringing harm to the Iraqi people.”

Aziz joined Saddam’s Baath Party when he was 21 years old and worked for years as a journalist. A loyal party member, he changed his name from Mikhail Yuhanna to a more Arabic-sounding Tariq Aziz and rose through party ranks to the ruling Revolutionary Command Council in 1977.

He became deputy prime minister in 1979. A year later, he survived an assassination attempt by Shiite militants — an attack that was used to justify in part Saddam’s invasion of Iran in 1980, triggering an eight-year war.

Aziz became internationally known as the dictator’s defender and a fierce American critic as foreign minister after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and later as a deputy prime minister who frequently traveled abroad on diplomatic missions.

His meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker in Geneva in January 1991 failed to prevent the 1991 Gulf War.

Years later, Aziz met with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican just weeks before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion in a bid to head off that conflict.

Aziz, who was No. 43 in the deck of cards of wanted regime figures issued after Saddam’s ouster, surrendered to American forces on April 25, 2003. But he didn’t face charges until last year.

Two former U.N. humanitarian coordinators and one of Iraq’s senior Christians, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, were among the voices calling for his release in past years.

Last week, Aziz was acquitted of being responsible for a brutal crackdown on Shiite protesters that followed the 1999 assassination of a revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr — the father of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Three other former regime officials were sentenced to death in that case, including Chemical Ali. It was his third death sentence for atrocities under Saddam’s rule.

Aziz also faces charges in a third, pending case involving the arrests and killings of hundreds of Kurds in the early 1980s. If convicted, he could be sentenced to death.