BAGHDAD (AP) – An Iraqi court on Tuesday resumed hearing the case against Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein’s best-known lieutenants, and seven other former regime officials in the 1992 execution of dozens of merchants.
Aziz, 72, the former deputy prime minister, and ailing co-defendant “Chemical Ali” Hassan al-Majid both leaned on canes as they walked into the court room.
The trial’s opening session on April 29 was adjourned because al-Majid was too ill to attend, but the U.S. military, which has custody of the defendants, said Monday he had been cleared to attend the proceedings.
Al-Majid, who became known as Chemical Ali for chemical attacks against the Kurds in the 1980s, has already been sentenced to death in another case.
Tuesday’s case involves the execution of 42 merchants accused by Saddam’s government of being behind a sharp increase in food prices when the country was under strict U.N. sanctions.
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.
In outlining his case, chief prosecutor Adnan Ali asked the court “to issue the suitable punishment that will ease the hearts of widows and oppressed ones.” He called the merchants’ executions “a systematic campaign planned under the cover of darkness” and said the defendants were responsible because they were members of the Revolutionary Command Council, a rubber stamp group that approved the dictator’s decisions.
“Those tribunals held their hearings at night and did not allow the defendants to have lawyers or bring any documents that could help their case,» he said, adding that those executed included employees as well as the merchants themselves.
The trial, the fourth to be held for former regime officials since Saddam was ousted in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, could represent the last high-profile Saddam-era figure to face prosecution for alleged atrocities. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.
Aziz, the only Christian in Saddam’s mostly Sunni Muslim coterie, became internationally known as the dictator’s defender and a 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 U.S.-led invasion, Aziz met with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in a bid to head off the conflict. His defenders say he had nothing to do with any atrocities and have accused the Shiite-led government of seeking revenge for Aziz’s refusal to testify against the late dictator.
Presiding over the trial was 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 while on trial in a second case, stemming from the brutal crackdown on ethnic Kurds in the late 1980s. Chemical Ali was sentenced to death in that case.
A third trial is under way for officials accused of crushing a Shiite uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War.