Iraq sentences vice-president to death

Tareq al-Hashemi found guilty in absentia by criminal court of masterminding the killing of two people.

Iraq''s fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi gestures as he leaves a meeting in Ankara
Hashemi has denied the accusations levelled against him, including Sunday's court ruling [EPA]

A Baghdad criminal court has sentenced Iraq’s Sunni vice-president to death after finding him guilty of masterminding the killing of two people.

The court handed down the sentence in absentia against Tareq al-Hashemi on Sunday.

“From the beginning and through all procedures, it has become obvious that the Iraqi judicial system has been under political pressure.

– Muayad Obeid al-Ezzi, lawyer

Hashemi fled the country after Iraq’s Shia-led government authorities had accused him in December of running a death squad, as the last US troops were withdrawing from the country.

Hashemi has denied the accusations levelled against him, including Sunday’s court ruling.

The ruling came as at least 73 people were killed in a wave of attacks across Iraq.

The politically charged case sparked a crisis in Iraq’s government and has fuelled Sunni Muslim and Kurdish resentment against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia who critics say is monopolising power.

The trial has fuelled resentment among Iraq’s Sunni minority, and Hashemi himself has dismissed the charges against him as a political vendetta pursued by his longtime rival, Maliki.

Sunday’s final session of the trial opened a window on the politically charged nature of the case.

‘Political pressure’

The Baghdad courtroom was silent as the presiding judge read out the verdict convicting Hashemi and his son-in-law of organising the murders of a Shia security official and a lawyer who had refused to help the vice-president’s allies in terror cases.

The court sentenced both men in absentia to death by hanging; they have 30 days to appeal the verdict.

The judge said Hashemi, who is in Turkey, was acquitted in a third case linked to the killing of another security officer, due to a lack of evidence.

The defence team began its closing statement with a searing indictment of the judicial system, accusing it of losing its independence and siding with the Shia-led government.

“From the beginning and through all procedures, it has become obvious that the Iraqi judicial system has been under political pressure,” attorney Muayad Obeid al-Ezzi, the head of the defence team, told the court.

The presiding judge interjected, warning that that the court would open legal proceedings against the defence team if it continued to heap accusations on the court or the judicial system.

After the sentencing, al-Ezzi told Al Jazeera “This ruling has no legal value or effect. In absentia rulings cannot be considered final or enforced. It should remain with the court until the person sentenced is handed over to authorities or arrested.”

Final sentence ‘watered down’

Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel Hamid, reporting from Istanbul, where Hashemi currently is, said he “didn’t seem very worried at all” as Turkey has refused to hand him over to the Iraqi authorities.

“He knows he is safe,” she said.

She also noted that the final sentence was a lot more watered down than the initial charges.

“At the beginning he was being indicted for financing and organising death squads. He was told he was behind at least 150 attacks. If you look at today’s sentencing it has been completely watered down. Compared to what he was accused of, he has just been sentenced on the killing of a lawyer and a security official,” our correspondent said.

Iraq’s government has accused Hashemi of playing a role in 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks from 2005 to 2011 – most of which were allegedly carried out by his bodyguards and other employees.

Most of the attacks the government claims Hashemi was behind targeted the vice-president’s political foes, as well as government officials, security forces and Shia pilgrims.

The trial, which began last spring, featured testimony from the vice-president’s former bodyguards, who said they were ordered, and then paid, to launch the attacks.

Government forces who found weapons when they raided Hashemi’s house and that of his son-in-law also testified in the case, as did relatives of the victims.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies