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Tareq Aziz trial opens in Baghdad

Latest update : 2008-04-29

Tareq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's former deputy premier, faces charges related to the execution of 42 Baghdad businessmen in 1992. Presiding over the tribunal is the judge who sentenced Saddam Hussein to death in 2006. (Report: H. Papper)

Iraq's former deputy premier Tareq Aziz, who goes on trial on Tuesday after five years in US custody, used his mastery of English to put a cultured gloss on the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Aziz, who was for two decades the regime's principal spokesman to the outside world, now finds himself before the Iraqi High Tribunal facing the death penalty if convicted of charges related to the execution of 42 businessmen in 1992.
Born in Iraq's main northern city of Mosul in 1936, Aziz was from a Chaldean Catholic family. He changed his given name, Michael Yuhanna, to Tareq Aziz to allay any Arab nationalist hostility to his Christian background.
He had known Saddam since the 1950s, but was kept outside the closed Sunni Muslim circle of the president's fellow clansmen from the central town of Tikrit even as he rose to become the leading Christian in the Baathist regime.
Named foreign minister in 1983 and then deputy prime minister in 1991, he is believed to have wielded little real power of decision-making.
But the fluent English speaker became one of the regime's best-known figures in the outside world and Saddam was said to have listened to the widely travelled, avuncular figure.
Previously omnipresent in the international media with his trademark thick glasses and neatly pressed military uniform, Aziz turned himself over to US custody one month after the March 2003 invasion.
He was questioned several times by judges of the Iraqi High Tribunal trying the former president and top aides for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
His lawyer Badie Aref charged that US forces were holding Aziz in a room "reserved for dogs" measuring just two metres (six feet) by one metre wide, which he was allowed to leave only for brief periods.
Very little has been heard of Aziz during his time in US custody. His daughters, Zinab and Saja, have visited their father during his incarceration and said they found him in poor health.
He is said to have suffered two heart attacks since being taken into custody, with his lawyer saying the second was brought on by a three-day hunger strike he held in protest at his detention.
Aziz also suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and respiratory problems, his family say, and he reportedly suffered a blood clot on the brain.
The image of an ailing old man is very different to his previous existence defending seemingly lost causes as a faithful servant of Saddam.
Instructed to go to explain the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 -- when Saddam's use of Western civilians as "human shields" sparked outrage -- or Baghdad's repeated standoffs with UN weapons inspectors through the 1990s, the genial Aziz always found the words that made headlines.
After British and US air strikes on Baghdad in 1998, he boldly laid into the international community, the Arab world and the "criminals" -- then British prime minister Tony Blair and US president Bill Clinton.
His command of English, learned at Baghdad university, not only ensured that the big guns of the English-language media turned out to listen, but also helped him give fierce tongue-lashings guaranteed to make any diplomat squirm.
With his defiant tone and ever-present cigar, Aziz gave the impression he would defend Saddam to the end, however impossible that may sometimes have appeared to the West.
Even after Saddam's execution, Aziz took the stand during the trial of three other leading members of the regime last year to insist that his longtime master was not guilty of charges of crimes against humanity and had only been punishing would-be assassins.
He was referring to Saddam's conviction for ordering the deaths of 148 residents following an assassination attempt against him in the town of Dujail in 1982 that led to the ousted president being given the death sentence.
Aziz was one of few long-term senior survivors of Saddam's regime who was not part of the president's Tikriti clan.
He was already in the command structure of the Baath party in 1963, in charge of propaganda, five years before the Baathists consolidated their grip on power.
He ran the party newspaper Ath-Thawra and then in the mid-1970s became information minister.
He survived an apparent assassination attempt by grenade at Baghdad's Mustansiriyah University in 1980, which killed several people.

Date created : 2008-04-29