Saddam Official Tariq Aziz on Trial for Mass Killings

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Former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is set to go to court Tuesday over the execution of dozens of merchants in 1992. Aziz also served as foreign minister in Saddam Hussein's government.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to spend this part of the program on the trials that emerge from a time or war. In a moment, we'll report on defendants who are getting a second chance. A special court is handling the cases of some veterans who get arrested after returning from Afghanistan or Iraq.

INSKEEP: We begin with a defendant who could be out of chances if convicted. He was an aide to Saddam Hussein, one of the last to go on trial. Before the U.S. invasion, Tariq Aziz was Iraq's smooth diplomatic front man.

Mr. TARIQ AZIZ (Former Saddam Hussein Aide): If the question of so-called of weapons of mass destruction is a genuine concept by the United States, this matter could be dealt with reasonably. But this is the pretext. In the end they will use whatever pretext that remains in their hands to attack.

INSKEEP: That's Tariq Aziz in 2002. Now, however, he is accused of a role in mass executions during Saddam Hussein's regime. NPR's Eric Westervelt is following the trial from Baghdad, and what was the crime?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, in 1992, Steve, not long after the Gulf War and the start of U.N.-imposed sanctions, food prices in Iraq skyrocketed and Saddam Hussein quickly arrested 42 of the biggest wholesale food merchants in Baghdad and charged them with, quote, "sabotaging the national economy."

They were rounded up by a branch of Saddam's Mukhabarat, the secret police. Many were told they were going to a routine meeting at the trade ministry. In fact, they were all taken to the interior ministry and after a speedy one-day trial, they were all executed, they were all shot.

INSKEEP: Okay. So that sounds like a classic crime of the Saddam era. But if I'm remembering correctly, Tariq Aziz, for much of his time as an aide to Saddam, was foreign minister or spokesman or serving as someone who was a voice to the outside world. What's his alleged role in these executions?

WESTERVELT: Well, that's interesting. Prosecutors says Aziz was a member of Saddam's Revolutionary Command Council, and he was, and that he had to sign off on these execution orders or was involved in those decisions. So he's charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, among other charges.

We spoke with Aziz's main lawyer, Badia Arif - he's in Jordan - and by the way says he can't make it to today's trial, Steve, because of security concerns. Security can't be guaranteed by the Iraqi government. He called the charges against his client weird and odd. He says Aziz was in charge of the foreign ministry and diplomatic file at that time, frequently was traveling abroad and had nothing to do with the direct day-to-day decisions of the Revolutionary Command Council. And in fact this command council was largely a rubber stamp for whatever Saddam Hussein ordered.

INSKEEP: Setting that aside, why would Aziz come to trial now more than five years after the fall of Baghdad and now that his boss is dead?

WESTERVELT: Well, Aziz's lawyer argues that the Iraqi government was under pressure to charge Aziz with something. He's been held for more than five years. He surrendered to U.S. forces not long after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. They've kept him in prison for five years plus.

His lawyer said, you know, they have, quote, "fabricated charges against my client so he doesn't just die in prison."

INSKEEP: Is he in any shape for a trial at age 72?

WESTERVELT: Well, he's in pretty poor health. He last appeared before this tribunal during Saddam's trial. He was wearing pajamas and looking in pretty rough shape, Steve. During that trial he forcefully defended the regime and said it was, quote, "an honor to serve the hero, Saddam Hussein." But it's not clear Aziz is in any good shape to even show up in court today.

And Chemical Ali, who's already been found guilty and sentenced to die for his role in massacring Kurds in the late 1980s, is also in poor health. He suffered a heart attack last week, and it's doubtful that Chemical Ali will make it to court today either.

INSKEEP: Okay. NPR's Eric Westervelt is in Baghdad, where Tariq Aziz, former aide to Saddam Hussein, was scheduled to go on trial as soon as today. And we'll bring you more as we learn it. Eric, thanks very much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

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