BAGHDAD — The international face of Saddam Hussein's regime, Tariq Aziz, was sentenced to death by hanging Tuesday for persecuting Shiites just over three months after the Americans transferred him to Iraqi government custody.
Iraqi High Tribunal spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Sahib did not say when the 74-year-old former foreign minister would go to the gallows. Aziz has 30 days to launch an appeal.
Aziz, the only Christian in Saddam's mainly Sunni inner circle, was wearing a blue suit and sat alone in the court. He bowed his head and frequently grasped the handrail in front of him, as the judge read out the verdict.
The Vatican urged Iraq to not carry out the death sentence and said it may intervene to try to halt it
A spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican hoped that the sentence wouldn't be carried out and added that Vatican usually would pursue any possible humanitarian intervention to halt an execution via diplomatic channels.
His Jordan-based lawyer, Badee Izzat Aref, accused the government of orchestrating the verdict to divert attention from recent revelations about prisoner abuse by Iraqi security forces contained in U.S. military documents released last week by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks.
"We are discussing this issue and what next step we should take," Aref told The Associated Press in Amman, the Jordanian capital. "This sentence is not fair and it is politically motivated."
Aziz became internationally known as the dictator's defender and a fierce American critic first as foreign minister after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and later as a deputy prime minister. His meeting with Secretary of State James A. Baker in Geneva in January 1991 failed to prevent the 1991 Gulf War. Aziz also met with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican weeks before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion in a bid to head off that conflict.
Iraq has executed a number of high-profile members of Saddam's regime, including "Chemical Ali" al-Majid, Saddam's cousin, who earned his nickname for atrocities such as the deaths of an estimated 5,000 Kurds in a poison gas attack in 1988.
Saddam was taunted by onlookers as he went to the gallows in December 2006, at the height of the sectarian violence, shocking many observers in and outside the country and raising allegations the Shiite-led government was bent on revenge.
Aziz was on trial in a long-running case in which he is accused of being part of a campaign of persecuting, killing and torturing members of the Shiite opposition and the banned religious parties, like the Shiite Dawa Party, of which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a member.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking part in forced displacement and 10 years for committing torture. Judge Mahmoud Saleh al-Hassan declared the harshest punishment – death by hanging – for participating in deliberate killings but gave no details.
Aziz was one of five members of the deposed regime who were convicted Tuesday of similar crimes. A sixth defendant, Saddam's half brother, Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan, was found innocent because of lack of evidence, the judge said. Al-Hassan served as interior minister.
Aziz 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.
If the Appeals' Court upholds the death sentence, the law says Aziz should be hanged within 30 days of the final decision. The Iraqi president also needs to sign off on an execution order.
Aziz predicted in a recent interview with the AP that he will die in prison, citing his old age and lengthy prison sentences.
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 into 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. The Americans transferred Aziz to Iraqi custody along with dozens of other former regime figures as part of preparations for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of next year.
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 now being held. He has suffered several strokes while in American custody. He used a cane for support during recent court appearances.
He was well-known in world capitals as he frequently traveled abroad on diplomatic missions.
The U.S. military continues to hold eight members of Saddam's regime, including former defense minister Sultan Hashim al-Taie, at the request of the Iraqi government.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan and Lara Jakes in Baghdad contributed to this report.