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Tareq al-Hashemi Trial Begins

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TARIQ AL HASHEMI
Iraq's fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi speaks during a press conference on May 4, 2012 in Istanbul. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty Images


By Suadad al-Salhy

BAGHDAD, May 15 (Reuters) - The trial of Iraq's fugitive vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi, opened in his absence on Tuesday and a lawmaker whose relatives were allegedly killed by death squads under his orders screamed abuse across the courtroom.

Hashemi, a leading Sunni Muslim politician in parliament's Iraqiya bloc, fled Baghdad in December when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government sought his arrest just days after the last American troops left Iraq.

Interpol is seeking Hashemi's arrest on murder charges at the Iraqi government's request. He denies all the charges, which Iraqiya says amount to persecution by Maliki in a case that has rattled the fragile, cross-sectarian government in Baghdad.

Maliki's critics say the Shi'ite leader is trying to sideline Sunni and Kurdish partners to consolidate his power.

Hashemi is in Turkey, which has refused to extradite him. He has refused to stand trial in Baghdad, saying the charges are politically motivated and the case is riddled with legal errors.

The Sunni politician is charged alongside his son-in-law, Ahmed Kahtan, and 73 of his personal bodyguards.

One bodyguard, Ahmed Shawqi, accused Kahtan of orchestrating a series of murders and attacks against mainly Shi'ite targets.

"I confirm that we were carrying out operations such as planting bombs, car bombs and assassinations," Shawqi told the court. "I say all the operations were done under Hashemi's son-in-law Ahmed Kahtan."

Muna Mahdi, a Shi'ite member of parliament, shouted "May God blacken your face, you dog," when Shawqi described how a death squad had killed her brother and his wife.

A three-judge panel at Baghdad's Central Criminal Court heard testimony from one other bodyguard and from five relatives of people allegedly killed by the death squads before adjourning until May 20.

The trial is initially focusing on three murder charges involving the assassination of a general manager in the Ministry of National Security, an officer in the Interior Ministry and a female lawyer, according to the judiciary council.

Hashemi and his bodyguards have also been charged with the murders of six judges. Prosecutors are investigating about 300 potential charges against the group.

Hashemi's supporters say some of the bodyguards were tortured into making the accusations against him. (Writing by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Barry Malone and Alistair Lyon)