BAGHDAD, (AP) – Saddam Hussein’s notorious cousin “Chemical Ali” was convicted Sunday of crimes against humanity and received his fourth death sentence, this time for involvement in one of the worst poison gas attacks ever against civilians.
Ali Hassan al-Majid is among the last of Saddam’s closest confidants still on trial for crimes committed by the former regime. The verdict met with jubilation in across Iraq, highlighting the deep-rooted hatred many Iraqis feel toward the former regime and to Chemical Ali, one of the chief architects of Saddam’s repression.
Families of victims in court cheered when the judge handed down the guilty verdict in a trial for the poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 that killed 5,600 people.
“I am so happy today,” said Nazik Tawfiq, 45, a Kurdish woman who said she lost six of her relatives in the attack. She came to court alone to hear the sentence, and fell to her knees and began to pray upon hearing the verdict. “Now the souls of our victims will rest in peace.”
Al-Majid, whose nickname comes from his role in that attack, has already received three previous death sentences for atrocities committed during Saddam’s rule, particularly in the government’s campaigns against the Shiites and Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Other officials in Saddam’s regime received jail terms for their roles in the attack following guilty verdicts on charges that included crimes against humanity.
Former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie faces 15 years in prison, as does Iraq’s former director of military intelligence, Sabir Azizi al-Douri.
Farhan Mutlaq al-Jubouri, a former top military intelligence official, was sentenced to 10 years.
The killings are a particularly sore point for Iraq’s Kurds. Many people in Halabja still suffer physically from the effects of the nerve and mustard gas that were unleashed on the village at the end of the Iran-Iraq War.
Some survivors feel it was unfair that Saddam was hanged for the killings of Shiites following a 1982 assassination attempt, but did not live to face justice for the Halabja attack.
An estimated 5,600 people were killed in the gassing of the town, which was widely seen as the biggest use of chemical weapons on civilians in history.
The man known as “Chemical Ali” was previously sentenced to hang for his role in a brutal crackdown against the Kurds in the late 1980s, known as the Anfal campaign, that killed hundreds of thousands.
The court later issued separate death sentences for his role in the 1991 suppression of a Shiite uprising and for a 1999 crackdown that sought to quell a Shiite backlash to the slaying of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed al-Sadr.
The earlier death sentences against al-Majid have not been carried out because they are tied to a political dispute involving al-Taie, who was also sentenced to death along with Chemical Ali in the Anfal trial.
Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, have both refused to sign the execution order against al-Taie, who signed the cease-fire with U.S.-led forces that ended the 1991 Gulf War. Al-Taie is a Sunni Arab viewed by many as a respected career soldier who was forced to follow Saddam’s orders in the purges against Kurds.
The three-member presidency council must approve all death sentences, and the failure to find agreement on al-Taie delayed the execution of al-Majid as well.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has pushed the presidency council to approve the death sentences pending against al-Majid and al-Taie.
Al-Taie surrendered to U.S. forces in September 2003 after weeks of negotiations. His defense has claimed the Americans had promised al-Taie “protection and good treatment” before he turned himself in.
Many Sunni Arabs saw his sentence as evidence that Shiite and Kurdish officials are persecuting their once-dominant minority by using their influence over the judiciary.
Another reason for the delay is that the Kurds from Halabja have also been pushing to have their day in court with al-Majid.
Mohammed Saeed Ali, a Kurdish city official in Halabja, said al-Majid ought to be hanged in Halabja to bring closure to victims’ relatives.
“Chemical Ali massacred us and we want to see him getting what he deserves,” he said.