Former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz went on trial today accused of involvement in the murders of dozens of food suppliers.
The trial of Aziz ,72, once the international face of Saddam Hussein’s regime could represent the last high-profile figure from that era to face prosecution for alleged atrocities.
He and five other defendants, including Saddam’s half brother Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan and the dictator’s cousin known as “Chemical Ali,” are accused of executing 42 merchants blamed for a sharp increase in food prices when the country was under strict UN sanctions.
Aziz was number 25 on the most-wanted list after the invasion and surrendered to American forces on April 25, 2003, about two weeks after the fall of Baghdad.
A judge with the Iraqi High Tribunal, which is prosecuting offences of the former regime, said the charges against the defendants included war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. If convicted, the men could face a sentence of death by hanging.
Aziz is accused of signing the execution orders against the merchants as a member of Saddam’s Revolutionary Command Council, a rubber stamp group that approved the dictator’s decisions.
The merchants were rounded up over two days in July 1992 from Baghdad’s wholesale markets and charged with manipulating food supplies to drive up prices at a time when many Iraqis were suffering economically. All 42 were executed hours later after a quick trial.
Abdul Amir al-Saedi, 54, said his father, who owned a grocery shop, and his brother were among those killed, along with several workers who were caught up in the raids.
“We had nothing to do with politics. We were businessmen and patriots,” he said, adding the traders were executed at Abu Ghraib prison and the Interior Ministry compound.
“When they arrested my father, they told him that they were taking him to a meeting at the trade ministry, but it turned out there was no such meeting and they were taken to the interior ministry instead,” al-Saedi said.
Aziz, a member of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic minority, became internationally known as Saddam’s defender and fierce American critic after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent 1991 Gulf War.
He was later promoted to deputy prime minister and often represented Iraq at the United Nations and other international forums. Just weeks before the US-led invasion, Aziz met with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in a bid to head off the conflict.
In late 2002, he called Washington’s allegations that Iraq still held weapons of mass destruction a “hoax” and a pretext to wage war.
Defence lawyer Badee Izzat Aref insisted Aziz was not responsible for the execution of the merchants.
“He was outside Iraq at that time and he was in general detached from things related to criminal charges against Iraqis,” Aref said. “He was a pure diplomat and politician.”
Aref said Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for ordering chemical weapons attacks on ethnic Kurds, was one of the defendants but would not attend today’s session because he was ill.
The US military said al-Majid remained under medical care after suffering a heart attack during a hunger strike earlier this month but he remains in an American detention facility.
Presiding over the trial will be judge Raouf Abdul-Rahman, who sentenced Saddam to death in May 2006 for his role in the killing of Shiite Muslims in the town of Dujail after an assassination attempt in 1982. Saddam was hanged the following December.
Saddam was executed while on trial in a second case, stemming from the brutal crackdown on ethnic Kurds in the late 1980s.
A third trial is under way for officials accused of crushing a Shiite uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War.
Chemical Ali, who also is on trial for the Shiite uprising trial, was sentenced to hang along with two others for their roles in a crackdown against ethnic Kurds in the late 1980s but the executions have been delayed due to disputes over details.