- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — An Iraqi court today opened the trial of Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein’s best-known lieutenants, and seven other defendants facing charges in the 1992 execution of dozens of merchants.

But the court quickly adjourned because a co-defendant, Saddam’s cousin known as “Chemical Ali,” was too ill to attend. The trial was scheduled to resume May 20.

Aziz, the international face of Saddam’s regime for more than a decade as foreign minister and other posts, entered the courtroom leaning on a walking stick.

Aziz, 72, and the other defendants present, including Saddam’s half brother Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan, were placed in a wooden pen and stood as the judge read their names and discussed legal issues.

No formal charges were read. Aziz and the others are facing charges stemming from the 1992 executions 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.

If convicted, the defendants could face a sentence of death by hanging.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, who gained the nickname Chemical Ali for ordering chemical attacks on Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s, is already under a death sentence.

The presiding judge, Raouf Abdul-Rahman, said doctors had signed a medical report saying al-Majid was in critical condition and needed some three weeks to recover. Under Iraqi law, all defendants are supposed to attend the first session of a trial.

The U.S. military said Monday that al-Majid is under medical care at an American detention facility after suffering a heart attack during a hunger strike earlier this month.

Aziz has denied the accusations, his Italian lawyer said in a statement today.

“Mr. Aziz is not guilty of any offense whatsoever,” Giovanni Di Stefano said in the statement.

Di Stefano was one of several non-Arab attorneys who consulted for the core team that defended Saddam Hussein. Saddam was sentenced to death for the killing of 148 Shi’ites and hanged in 2006.

Aziz was the only Christian among Saddam’s mostly Sunni Muslim inner coterie.

He was No. 25 on the U.S. most-wanted list after the invasion. He surrendered to American forces on April 25, 2003, and has been in custody ever since.

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