BAGHDAD, (AP) – An Iraqi court on Monday convicted Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s longtime foreign minister, of terrorizing Shiite Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war, sentencing him to 10 years in prison.
The jail term piles a new penalty on the 74-year-old Aziz, the only Christian in Saddam’s inner circle who already faces an execution sentence from another case.
It is the fourth set of charges against Aziz, who is asking Iraqi President Jalal Talabani for a pardon to spare him from execution. Aziz attorney Giovanni di Stefano said Monday afternoon that it is also the last legal hurdle that the former diplomat and deputy prime minister had to face before Talabani could consider pardoning him.
Aziz, wearing a blue suit and leaning heavily on his cane, was without a lawyer in court. He has predicted he will die in prison.
“Ten years, 15 years, life: It is all academic,” di Stefano, who is based in Italy and has criticized the legal proceedings as stacked against Aziz, said in an e-mail. “Not even if Clarence Darrow had represented him would the trial have been considered anything close to fair.”
Darrow was a legendary U.S. civil liberties lawyer in the early 1900s.
Iraqi High Tribunal spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Sahib said Aziz was spared a death sentence for the crimes against humanity because he had a lesser involvement than some of his co-defendants in the atrocities against the small Faili sect of ethnic Kurds who follow the Shiite branch of Islam.
The verdicts were read as Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad Bolani briefed foreign diplomats about a thwarted attack on the French Embassy in Baghdad.
He said security forces a captured a minibus already packed with explosives in the garage of the same group that carried out a horrific siege on a Christian church last month that killed 68. He said 14 people have been arrested in the plot.
Bolani discussed the plot with The Associated Press and briefed officials from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States.
Meanwhile, four people were killed and 29 wounded by a car bomb that exploded outside a restaurant in Baqouba, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) northeast of the capital, said Maj. Ghalib al-Karkhi, the police spokesman for Diyala province.
Another bomb on Baghdad’s western Abu Ghraib suburb killed a policeman and an Iraqi soldier as they were trying to diffuse it.
Of the other 15 defendants in the Iraqi High Tribunal case, three Saddam loyalists were found guilty and sentenced to death. Two, including Aziz, were sentenced to 10 years in prison. The remaining 10 were acquitted, including Saddam’s two half brothers, Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan and Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan.
“Thanks to God,” Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan murmured when he heard the verdict.
The Faili Kurd minority comes mainly from an area in northeastern Iraq that straddles the Iraq-Iran border. Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, killed, detained and deported tens of thousands of Faili Kurds early in his 1980-1988 war with Iran, denouncing them as alien Persians and spies for the Iranians.
Talabani, a Kurd himself, has said he will not sign off on Aziz’s death warrant, given his old age and the fact that he is a Christian. But there are ways in Iraq’s constitution to bypass the president in capital cases, and it is not clear if Talabani even has the authority to grant Aziz a pardon.
Several European nations that oppose the death penalty also have called for amnesty for Aziz.
After the verdicts were read, tribunal Chief Judge Nadhum al-Aboudi told reporters that Aziz should not be singled out for better treatment simply because he is Christian.
“The court does not look at the religion or the nationality or sect of the person,” said an obviously irritated al-Aboudi. “Some ask why Tariq Aziz got the death penalty, which they consider a prosecution against Christians. The court is an independent body … Tariq Aziz is an Iraqi man and our laws are implemented upon all Iraqis.”
Di Stefano said Aziz should be released after already having served more than seven years in prison. He also said he will sue the U.S. government for reneging on what he called an agreement approved by former U.S. President George W. Bush to release Aziz after being questioned about the Saddam regime as a condition of his 2003 surrender to American forces in Iraq.