An Iraqi court on Tuesday began hearing the case against Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein's best-known lieutenants, who is accused of ordering the execution of dozens of merchants for profiteering.
Aziz, 72, a former deputy prime minister under Hussein, is one of eight defendants in the case. If convicted, they could be sentenced to death.
Other defendants include Saddam's half brother Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan and the dictator's cousin known as "Chemical Ali," who faces a pending death sentence in another case.
Aziz walked into the court room on Tuesday leaning on a walking stick. But Ali, whose full name is Ali Hassan al-Majid, did not attend the opening proceedings due to health reasons, Judge Raouf Abdul-Rahman said.
The judge then adjourned the trial until May 20, citing al-Majid's absence. He said doctors had signed a medical report saying that al-Majid was sick and needed some three weeks to recover.
The U.S. military said Monday that al-Majid is under medical care at an American detention facility after suffering a heart attack earlier this month.
The trial had been scheduled to open at 10:15 a.m., but was pushed back to 5 p.m.
The judge, Abdul-Rahman, said this was due to "organizational and procedural measures," because the defendants had not been brought to the courthouse on time.
Trial over 1992 deaths
A judge with the Iraqi High Tribunal, which is prosecuting offenses of the former regime, said charges against the defendants include war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The charges stem from the execution of 42 merchants accused by Saddam's government of being behind a sharp increase in food prices when the country was under strict U.N. sanctions.
The merchants were rounded up over two days in July 1992 from Baghdad's wholesale markets and charged with manipulating food supplies to drive up prices at a time when many Iraqis were suffering economically. All 42 were executed hours later following a quick trial.
The tribunal judge — who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the information — said Aziz was being prosecuted because he signed the execution orders against the merchants as a member of Saddam's Revolutionary Command Council, a rubber stamp group that approved the dictator's decisions.
Aziz has denied the accusations through his Italian lawyer.
"Mr. Aziz is not guilty of any offense whatsoever," Giovanni Di Stefano, the lawyer, said in a statement.
Another defense attorney, Badee Izzat Aref, has said Aziz is ailing and still suffers from the effects of a stroke he had prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Aziz was the only Christian among Saddam's mostly Sunni Muslim inner coterie.
He was No. 25 on the U.S. most-wanted list after the invasion. He surrendered to American forces on April 25, 2003, and has been in custody ever since.
‘We had nothing to do with politics’
Abdul Amir al-Saedi, 54, said his father, who owned a grocery store, and his brother were among those killed, along with several workers who were caught up in the raids.
“We had nothing to do with politics. We were businessmen and patriots,” he said, adding the traders were executed at Abu Ghraib prison and the Interior Ministry compound.
“When they arrested my father, they told him that they were taking him to a meeting at the trade ministry, but it turned out there was no such meeting and they were taken to the interior ministry instead,” al-Saedi said.
Al-Saedi, who planned to testify in the trial, said witnesses told him Watban had personally accused the merchants of being spies, but he did not know what role Aziz had in the case.
“I think he had nothing to do with the traders execution,” he said Monday during an interview.
Aziz, a member of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic minority, became internationally known as Saddam’s defender and fierce American critic after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent 1991 Gulf War.
He was later promoted to deputy prime minister and often represented Iraq at the United Nations and other international forums. Just weeks before the U.S.-led invasion, Aziz met with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in a bid to head off the conflict.
In late 2002, he called Washington’s allegations that Iraq still held weapons of mass destruction a “hoax” and a pretext to wage war.
Aref insisted Aziz was not responsible for the execution of the merchants.
“He was outside Iraq at that time and he was in general detached from things related to criminal charges against Iraqis,” Aref said. “He was a pure diplomat and politician.”
Saddam was executed in 2006 while on trial in a second case, stemming from the brutal crackdown on ethnic Kurds in the late 1980s.
A third trial is under way for officials accused of crushing a Shiite uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War.
Chemical Ali, who also is on trial for the Shiite uprising trial, was sentenced to hang along with two others for their roles in a brutal crackdown against ethnic Kurds in the late 1980s but the executions have been stalled due to disputes over details.