- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — Saddam Hussein’s longtime foreign minister Tariq Aziz was sentenced to death by hanging Tuesday for persecuting members of Shi’ite religious parties under the former regime.

Iraq’s high criminal court spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Sahib did not say when Aziz, 74, would be put to death. The death sentence followed his conviction of taking part in a Saddam-led campaign that hunted and executed members of the Shi’ite Dawa Party, of which current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a member.

Aziz, a Christian who became the international face of Saddam’s regime, can appeal the sentence.

It was not immediately clear if Aziz’s Jordan-based attorney, Badee Izzat Aref, will appeal the verdict.

“We are discussing this issue and what next step we should take,” Mr. Aref told the Associated Press in Amman, the Jordanian capital. Aziz has 30 days to decide on launching an appeal, he said.

Aziz predicted in a recent interview with the AP that he will die in prison, citing his old age and lengthy prison sentences. He has already been convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in the 1992 execution of 42 merchants found guilty of profiteering. He also received a seven-year prison sentence for a case involving the forced displacement of Kurds in northern Iraq.

Mr. Aref questioned the timing of the death sentence. He said the court’s decision was politically motivated and accused Mr. al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government of trying to divert attention from recent WikiLeaks revelations of prisoners’ abuse by Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military.

“This sentence is not fair and it is politically motivated,” he said.

Aziz’s son, Ziad, told the AP that the death sentence was “unfair” and “illogical.” He said his father was the victim, not the criminal, since Dawa Party members tried to assassinate him in 1980.

“This is an illogical and an unfair sentence that is serving political goals of the Iraqi government,” Ziad said in an interview Tuesday. “Tariq Aziz himself was the victim of the religious parties that tried to kill him in 1980, but now he is turned to a criminal.”

Aziz surrendered to U.S. forces about a month after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He was held at an American prison in Baghdad until the U.S. handed over control of the facility in July to the Iraqi government.

When Aziz was transferred from U.S. to Iraqi custody, his family said they were worried about his health in Baghdad’s Kazimiyah prison, where Aziz is being held now. He has suffered several strokes while in Iraqi custody. He used a cane for support during recent court appearances.

A fluent English speaker and the only Christian in the senior leadership of Saddam’s mainly Sunni regime, Aziz became internationally known as the dictator’s defender and a fierce critic of the United States both as foreign minister after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and later as a deputy prime minister who frequently traveled abroad on diplomatic missions.

Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.

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