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Tarik Aziz, spokesman for Saddam Hussein’s regime, is sentenced to death

Tarik Aziz, known worldwide as the international spokesman for Saddam Hussein’s regime, was sentenced to death Tuesday for his part in the past persecution of Shiite Muslim dissidents, some of whom now occupy prominent roles in the Iraqi government.

Aziz, 74, listened impassively as the sentence was read at Baghdad’s Supreme Criminal Court. Dressed in a casual black shirt and wearing his trademark owlish spectacles, he appeared frail and sickly, gripping the handrail of the prisoner’s dock as the judge spoke.

“Did you hear?” the judge asked, after concluding his remarks. “Yes,” Aziz responded weakly before being ushered out of the courtroom, according to televised video of the hearing.

Aziz, who suffered a stroke in January, has frequently predicted that he would die in jail because of his ill health, family members say. His lawyers have 30 days to appeal, but judging from previous cases involving former regime members, the effort would probably not succeed and Aziz could face the hangman shortly after that.

Four other former members of the Hussein regime also received death sentences in the case Tuesday, including Hussein’s former secretary Abed Hameed and former Interior Minister Sadoon Shaker.

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A sixth defendant, Hussein’s half brother Watban Ibrahim Hassan, was acquitted for lack of evidence. But he has been sentenced to death in another case.

A member of Iraq’s Christian minority, Aziz shot to prominence during the 1991 Persian Gulf War as foreign minister. He was later promoted to deputy prime minister, a post he held until the Baath Party regime fell and he surrendered to U.S. forces in April 2003.

With his impeccable English, urbane manner and fondness for whiskey and cigars, Aziz presented a Westernized face to the international community. He appeared on TV screens around the world to defend the regime’s invasion of Kuwait, its defiance of international sanctions and its refusal to cooperate with United Nations inspectors looking for weapons of mass destruction.

In the days leading up to the U.S. invasion, rumors spread that he had been killed attempting to flee the country. In response, Aziz made a dramatic appearance on television, brandishing a pistol and vowing that he was “ready to fight the aggressors.”

Aziz had been sentenced to several previous prison terms for other crimes committed during the Hussein years, but this was his first death sentence. In delivering the verdict, the judge cited the imprisonment, torture, execution and forced exile of tens of thousands of Shiite opponents of the regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time Hussein felt threatened by the surge of politicized Shiite religiosity sweeping across the region in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran.

Among those forced to flee was current Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose Shiite Islamic Dawa Party was the main target of the crackdown. The founder and revered leader of the party, cleric Mohammed Bakr Sadr, was hanged in 1980, reputedly after suffering severe torture.

Aziz’s son, Ziad Aziz, told CNN that his father had never been involved in any of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the former regime. He accused Maliki and the Dawa Party of using him to exact revenge against others.

“This is a cruel, vengeful, political verdict against a man who served his country and became a victim of the religious parties in Iraq,” he said. “He was a man who served his country and sacrificed for it professionally.”

The elder Aziz has resolutely defended Hussein from his jail cell on numerous occasions, telling Britain’s Guardian newspaper in August that “history will show he served his country.”

liz.sly@latimes.com


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