Fugitive Iraqi vice president sentenced to death

Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq's vice president, was found guilty of masterminding the killings of a lawyer and a government security official. He was sentenced to death Sunday. The case has increased Sunni-Shiites tensions, as some accuse the Shiite-led government of monopolizing power. Al-Hashemi is Sunni.

AP Photo/File
Iraq's vice president Tariq al-Hashemi speaks in Istanbul, Turkey in April. An Iraqi court found the nation's Sunni vice president guilty Sunday, of running death squads against security forces and Shiites, and sentenced him to death in absentia.

Iraq's fugitive Sunni vice president was sentenced to death Sunday after a Baghdad court found him guilty of masterminding the killings of a lawyer and a government security official.

Tariq al-Hashemi, who has denied the allegations, fled the country after Iraq's Shiite-led government leveled the terror charges against him in December. The politically charged case sparked a crisis in Iraq's government and has fueled Sunni Muslim and Kurdish resentment against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who critics say is monopolizing power.

The Baghdad courtroom was silent Sunday as the presiding judge read out the verdict convicting al-Hashemi and his son-in-law of organizing the murders of a Shiite security official as well as lawyer who had refused to help the vice president's allies in terror cases.

The court sentenced both men to death by hanging in absentia. They have 30 days to appeal the verdict.

The judge said al-Hashemi, who is currently in Turkey, was acquitted in a third case linked to the killing of a security officer due to a lack of evidence.

The case has fueled resentment among Iraq's Sunni minority, and al-Hashemi himself has dismissed the charges against him as a political vendetta pursued by his longtime rival, al-Maliki.

Sunday's closing session of the trial provided a window into the politically charged nature of the case.

The defense team began its closing statement with a searing indictment of the judicial system, accusing it of losing its independence and siding with the Shiite-led government.

"From the beginning and through all procedures it has become obvious that the Iraqi Judicial system has been under political pressure," attorney Muayad Obeid al-Ezzi, the head of the defense team, told the court.

The presiding judge immediately interjected, warning that that the court would open legal proceedings against the defense team if it continued to heap accusations on the court or the judicial system.

The trial, which opened this spring, held a total of 10 hearings and featured testimony from the vice president's former bodyguards, who said they were ordered, and then paid, to launch the attacks. Government forces who found weapons when they raided al-Hashemi's house and that of his son-in-law also testified in the case, as did relatives of the victims.

A spokesman for al-Hashemi did not have an immediate comment and said the vice president would release a statement Sunday evening.

Iraq's Shiite-led government has accused al-Hashemi of playing a role in 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks from 2005 to 2011 — most of which were allegedly carried out by his bodyguards and other employees. Most of the attacks the government claims al-Hashemi was behind targeted the vice president's political foes, as well as government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims.

The charges against the vice president span the worst years of bloodshed that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as retaliatory sectarian attacks between Sunni and Shiite militants pushed the country to the brink of civil war. He has been in office since 2006.

Al-Hashemi has claimed that his bodyguards were likely tortured or otherwise coerced into testifying against him.

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