Critics say politics tainting trial of
Iraqi Sunni VP Hashemi
Politics loom large in trial
of Iraq VP, first major case dealing with sectarian
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (R). Iraq's
Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Photos:
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June 9, 2012
BAGHDAD, — Iraq's first major trial
dealing with the country's savage Sunni-Shiite
sectarian killings is tainted by politics, critics
say — an ominous sign for those hoping for justice
for tens of thousands of victims of street
executions, bombings and kidnappings.
The defendant, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, says
charges that he ran Sunni death squads are part of a
political vendetta by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,
a Shiite. Al-Hashemi's nine-member legal team walked
out in protest in the second court session late last
month, citing judicial bias. And the prosecution's
case relies heavily on the testimony of
co-defendants, that the defense claimed was coerced,
pointing to one who died in custody.
More broadly, regardless of the merits of the case
against al-Hashemi — the highest-ranking Sunni in
Iraq's leadership — the Shiite-dominated government
has shown no sign of trying to prosecute those
behind Shiite militias behind slayings of Sunnis.
Several of those militias were linked to Shiite
political parties that are now crucial backers of
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh denied any bias
in charging al-Hashemi or that he was singled out,
saying the case was strictly a legal matter. "Courts
look into the crime itself, not the sectarian
background" of the suspect, he said.
However, al-Maliki himself has acknowledged that
politics played a role in the timing of the charges
against al-Hashemi. The prime minister has said he
was aware of incriminating evidence against the vice
president three years ago, but didn't press the case
then "for the sake of the political process."
Prosecutors charged al-Maliki's often irksome rival
only in December, a day after U.S. troops left Iraq,
effectively ending the direct influence in Baghdad
of the United States, which had pressured Sunnis and
Shiites to get along. Al-Hashemi fled before he
could be arrested, first to Kurdish-run northern
Iraq where he was out of Baghdad's reach, then
Iraq remains paralyzed by the sectarian power
struggles even if violence has dropped off since the
worst bloodshed of 2006 and 2007.
Some say that even if there was a political will to
go after the major perpetrators, regardless of sect,
Iraq doesn't have the tools for such an enormous
task, particularly an independent judiciary not
intimidated by politicians or the threat of
"There has not been any investigation into the
atrocities," said Samer Muscati, a researcher at the
international group Human Rights Watch. "The
killings were on such a scale, and given the
priorities of the current government and ongoing
violence, it is hard for them to look at what
happened a few years ago."
Long-running tensions between Iraq's Shiite majority
and Sunni minority exploded three years after
U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled
Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. In February 2006, al-Qaida-linked
insurgents bombed a major Shiite shrine, an attack
that unleashed tit-for-tat killings, forcing
hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes
and pushing the country to the brink of civil war.
Among those involved in sectarian violence were the
Shiite Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to radical cleric
Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as gangs of al-Qaida-linked
Sunni insurgents trying to drive out U.S. troops.
Another Shiite group,www.ekurd.net
the Iranian-linked Badr Brigades, was suspected of
assassinating Saddam-linked army officers and
officials of his Baath Party, targeting Shiites and
Iraq's Human Rights Ministry says about 70,000
Iraqis have been killed since 2003 and an additional
15,000 are missing and presumed dead. In a sign of
the slow pace of digging up the blood-drenched past,
authorities received tips about 76 locations where
bodies might have been buried, but retrieved only
three dozen bodies in six areas, said Kamil Ameen, a
senior ministry official.
Prosecutors say al-Hashemi and his son-in-law, Ahmed
Qahtan, ran death squads between 2005 and 2011,
using a troupe of dozens of bodyguards to carry out
bombings and shootings that targeted, among others,
Shiite Muslim pilgrims and government officials.
The pair face 150 separate charges, but are
currently standing trial only for alleged roles in
three killings — of a lawyer, an Interior Ministry
official and a member of the security forces. Al-Hashemi
has denied wrongdoing.
The head of a human rights group in Iraq, speaking
on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution,
said he believes the government is trying to pin
most of the blame for the sectarian violence on
"I am not defending al-Hashemi as I believe almost
all politicians were involved in the killings of
Iraqis in the past years, and their hands are
stained with the blood of the Iraqi people," he
said. "All Iraqis know that."
Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group
think tank said politics loom large in the case.
"Nobody is investigating anything. This is a file
pulled out of the drawer," Hiltermann said of the
al-Hashemi case. "The charges could have a basis,
but there is no independent way of determining that"
because Iraq lacks a functioning judiciary.
Hiltermann added that such charges "can be brought
against any number of people on all sides."
Among those walking free is al-Sadr, whose support
is key to al-Maliki's continued rule. Sadrists
command 40 seats in the 325-member parliament and
are part of an unwieldy ruling coalition that also
includes the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc and
Al-Sadr has sided with Sunni and Kurd politicians in
a recent attempt to unseat al-Maliki, accused by his
coalition partners of monopolizing power. But the
cleric is also under intense pressure from his
Iranian mentors not to topple the government.
Any legal action against al-Sadr would surely
disrupt al-Maliki's efforts to keep him in the fold.
Al-Sadr was able in the past to leverage his
political clout to avoid prosecution. Several years
ago, an arrest warrant was issued for al-Sadr and
two aides in the 2003 killing of a Shiite cleric who
was hacked to death by a mob. Legal proceedings were
suspended in 2004, as part of a deal to end fighting
between al-Sadr's militiamen and U.S. troops in the
southern city of Najaf.
A former commander of the Badr Brigades, Hadi al-Amiri,
now serves as Transport Minister.
Al-Hashemi's defense team contends testimony against
him was obtained through coercion. His co-defendants
include more than 70 former aides and bodyguards,
several of whom have testified for the prosecution.
One bodyguard died in custody; the defense says he
was tortured, while the government insists he died
from kidney failure.
In three hearings so far, several bodyguards told
the three-judge panel they were usually approached
by al-Hashemi's son-in-law and asked to carry out
attacks. They said that on occasion, al-Hashemi
thanked them afterward and paid them.
The defense walked out of the second hearing after
the court denied a request to obtain evidence that
lawyers argued could exonerate the defendants,
including the son-in-law's phone records. In the
third hearing last week, defense lawyers sat among
fewer than two dozen spectators and only approached
the court once, to request that Iraq's president be
called as a character witness.
The next hearing is set for June 19. Justice
Ministry officials did not provide figures on trials
against others involved in post-war sectarian
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