BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's high tribunal Tuesday passed a death sentence on Tareq Aziz, once the international face of dictator Saddam Hussein's government, over the persecution of Islamic parties, the court said.
The death sentence was the first to be handed down to Aziz, who was well known in foreign capitals and at the United Nations before Saddam's downfall. He rose to prominence at the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War, when he was foreign minister.
"The court today issued the death sentence on Tareq Aziz and four others for committing crimes against humanity. The charge of elimination of religious parties was classified as crimes against humanity," Judge Mohammed Abdul-Sahib, a spokesman of the Iraqi High Tribunal, told Reuters.
"The nature of the crimes is wilful killing, torture and the enforced disappearance of persons."
Last year, Aziz was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his part in the killings of dozens of merchants in 1992 and to a further seven years for his role in the forced displacement of Kurds from northern Iraq during Saddam's rule.
He surrendered to invading U.S. forces in April 2003 but was handed over to Iraqi prison authorities this year. In August he accused U.S. President Barack Obama in a jailhouse interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper of "leaving Iraq to the wolves" because of U.S. plans to withdraw.
Aziz's Amman-based lawyer, Badie Arif, said the decision was politically motivated.
"It is a political verdict and not legal. He (Aziz) expected that, especially when the U.S. administration handed him over to the Iraqi government," Arif told Reuters by telephone from Amman.
RIGHT TO APPEAL
The Vatican urged Iraqi authorities not to carry out the death sentence against Aziz, a Christian. This, the Vatican spokesman said in a statement, would help reconciliation, peace and justice.
The Vatican did not rule out the possibility of making a humanitarian intervention on behalf of Aziz, but said this would be done through diplomatic channels, the spokesman added.
Sahib said Aziz and four other defendants in the case who were also sentenced to death were expected to appeal against the decision. Iraqi law provides for an automatic appeal for all death-sentence and life-imprisonment cases, even if the defendants do not lodge an appeal themselves.
The four other defendants sentenced to death were former interior minister and intelligence chief, Sadoun Shakir, Abed Hamoud, a former private secretary to Saddam, Saddam's half brother Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan and, a former top Baath party official, Abdul Ghani Abdul Ghafour.
An official in the court's media office said the evidence provided to court and the statements of witnesses had proved sufficient to convict them.
During Saddam's rule, only the Baath party was allowed to exist. The Sunni dictator crushed attempts to establish rival political organizations, and in particular carried out constant campaigns against Islamic parties.
Their leaders were assassinated, imprisoned or forced into exile. One of his main targets was the Islamic Dawa party of current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim.