- Associated Press - Monday, September 10, 2012

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq‘s fugitive Sunni vice president on Monday declared his “absolute innocence” in a terror trial that sentenced him to death on charges of masterminding the murder of rivals, and he rejected his conviction as a politically motivated sham.

Tariq al-Hashemi, who fled Iraq after the government brought charges against him, said he will not return to appeal the verdict unless he can be assured of a fair day in court.

Speaking from his exile in Turkey, al-Hashemi said a fair trial would be impossible in Baghdad and accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — a Shiite and the vice president’s longtime foe — of manipulating the courts against him as part of a political vendetta.

“The verdict is unjust, politicized, illegitimate, and I will not recognize it,” al-Hashemi told reporters in the Turkish capital, Ankara. “But I put it as a medal of honor on my chest because it was al-Maliki, not anyone else, behind it. I’m proud that it is al-Maliki, and not anyone else, to target me.”

“The death sentence is a price I have to pay due to my love for my country and my loyalty to my people,” he added. “I reiterate that I’m innocent, and am ready to stand before a fair judicial system and not a corrupt one that is under al-Maliki’s influence.”

Asked directly if he will return to Baghdad within 30 days to seek a retrial, as is his right under Iraqi law, al-Hashemi said, “I’m not going, regardless of the time scale that has been offered to me.”

Spokesmen for Mr. al-Maliki and the Iraqi government could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

Al-Hashemi fled to Turkey after Iraq‘s Shiite-led government issued the terror charges against him in December, the day after U.S. troops withdrew from the country. He would receive a retrial if he agrees to return to Baghdad, but al-Hashemi has refused, saying he will never get a fair hearing in a Baghdad court.

The politically charged case sparked a government crisis and fueled Sunni Muslim and Kurdish resentment against Mr. al-Maliki, who critics say is monopolizing power.

On Sunday, Baghdad’s criminal court convicted al-Hashemi and his son-in-law, Ahmed Qahtan, of organizing the murders of a Shiite security official and a lawyer who had refused to help the vice president’s allies in terror cases. In a third case, the two defendants were acquitted of the killing of a security officer because of a lack of evidence.

The charges were the first against al-Hashemi to go to trial among the government’s allegations that he played a role in 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks from 2005 to 2011 — years in which the country was mired in sectarian violence that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. Most of the attacks allegedly were carried out by al-Hashemi’s bodyguards and other employees and largely targeted government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims.

The Baghdad court sentenced both al-Hashemi and Qahtan in absentia to death. They have 30 days to appeal the verdict and could win a retrial if they return to Iraq to face the charges.

Sunday’s verdict was announced as Iraq reeled from a daylong pounding of bombings and shootings that left 92 people dead and more than 360 wounded in nearly two dozen attacks across the country. On Monday, in a statement posted on a militant website, al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq claimed responsibility for the wave of violence and vowed there will be more “black days ahead.”

Most of the court evidence against al-Hashemi came from 10 of his former bodyguards, who testified they were ordered by Qahtan, and then paid, to carry out killings in small groups. Qahtan managed al-Hashemi’s vice presidential office.

Al-Hashemi long has accused the government of torturing the bodyguards into giving false statements. His defense team did not offer any witnesses or testimony during the trial’s 10 hearings.

Al-Hashemi — who has been in office since 2006 — is on Interpol’s most-wanted list, but Turkey has shown no interest in sending the vice president back to Baghdad, straining diplomacy between the neighboring nations.

Al-Hashemi appeared defiantly upbeat at the packed press conference.

“I am not worried about my life,” he said. “I am worried about the future of my country.”

Associated Press writer Chris Torchia in Istanbul contributed to this report.