Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s former right-hand man and once the international face of the Iraqi regime, was sentenced to death by the Iraqi supreme criminal court on Tuesday.
Aziz, deputy prime minister and foreign minister in Saddam’s regime, had been charged with “deliberate murder and crimes against humanity.”
Two other defendants in the case, former Interior Minister Sadoun Shakir and Saddam’s private secretary, Abid Hamoud, also received death sentences.
All three were sentenced for their roles in the persecutions and murders of members of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated Dawa party, including its founder, Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr. The Dawa party was the main opposition group during Saddam’s reign.
Aziz, 74, is reported to be seriously ill.
His attorney, Badee Izzat Aref, told the Associated Press that the verdict was “politically motivated.”
However, State Department spokesman Michael Tran said all sentencing rulings, including Aziz’s death sentence, were “Iraqi decisions reached in accordance with Iraqi law.”
“Tariq Aziz has been convicted of numerous crimes against the people of Iraq,” Mr. Tran said.
Aziz was also sentenced to 15 years in prison for “committing torture” and 10 years for “participating in torture.” The court ordered that all his known wealth be confiscated.
In 2009, Aziz was handed a 15-year prison sentence for the executions of 42 Baghdad merchants in 1992. He also was given a seven-year sentence for his role in expelling Kurds from Iraq’s north.
He pleaded not guilty in both cases.
In a phone interview from Dubai, Samer Muscati, a researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, said the process under which Aziz was tried is “flawed because of serious administrative, procedural and substantive legal defects.”
“It is always a concern when someone is sentenced to death under the Iraqi penal system, considering the due process issues that exist,” Mr. Muscati said.
Some expressed surprise at the death sentence for Aziz.
While serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 1984 and 1988, David Newton met numerous times with Aziz.
“He was a very intelligent, active and capable foreign minister. Of course, he was working for a totalitarian government, but he favored a relationship with the United States,” said Mr. Newton, who is currently with the Middle East Institute.
Mr. Newton said that if Aziz’s only role was that he signed some documents ordering the execution of Iraqis on Saddam’s orders, his death sentence was not justified.
“Having been in Iraq four years, I know that under Saddam Hussein you did not refuse to do what you were ordered,” he said.
Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service, said Aziz’s death sentence was unexpected.
“There was a feeling that because he is a Christian, he wasn’t involved in any of the sectarian human rights abuses, anti-Shia discrimination,” Mr. Katzman said.
In fact, he said, Aziz tried to be a moderating influence on Saddam and even opposed the invasion of Kuwait, which triggered the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
The Vatican, meanwhile, urged Iraqi authorities not to execute Aziz, saying leniency would help reconciliation, peace and justice.
Aziz surrendered to U.S. troops after they invaded Iraq in 2003. He later said he regretted that decision.
Aziz’s Jordan-based son Ziad told Agence France-Presse that the sentence was “an act of revenge against anybody and anything related to the past.”
However, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said it was ridiculous to think that Aziz was guilty only by association with the Saddam regime.
“This wasn’t a man who joined the Ba’ath Party because he wanted an extra $20 per month. He was part and parcel of one of the most tyrannical regimes of the 20th century, a central decision-maker,” Mr. Rubin said.
Describing de-Ba’athification in Iraq as the West’s greatest achievement and legacy, Mr. Rubin added: “The Shia and Kurds will cheer Tariq Aziz’s execution.”
Under Iraqi law, death sentences can be appealed.
Mr. Katzman said the court ruling puts a cloud over the Iraqi justice system. “It calls into question the commitment to rule of law in a post-Saddam Iraq,” he said.
“Basically, anyone in the regime has got the death sentence, with a few exceptions,” Mr. Katzman said.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper in August, Aziz said President Obama was “leaving Iraq to the wolves” by withdrawing U.S. troops from the country.
He defended Saddam, saying, “History will show he served his country.”