Former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz went on trial on charges of executing 42 businessmen in 1992. The judge adjourned the trial, citing the absence of the eighth co-accused, Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali".
Tareq Aziz, the international face of hanged Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime, went on trial on Tuesday on charges of executing 42 Baghdad businessmen in 1992 that could see him sentenced to death.
Dressed in a brown suit and using a walking stick, Aziz joined six other defendants in court for the opening of the trial, which had been delayed for several hours.
The eighth defendant, Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali, is already on death row after being convicted of genocide for his part in the killing of tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians in the late 1980s.
He was not in court, with presiding judge Rauf Rasheed Abdel Rahman, himself a Kurd, declaring that Majid had submitted a medical certificate saying he was unwell.
Defence lawyers have often complained that Aziz has suffered from ill health while in US custody, and the man once famous for his big cigars coughed badly throughout Tuesday's 45-minute session.
Soon after proceedings began, Aziz demanded a new lawyer, saying his counsel "Badie Aref was unable to attend due to security reasons."
The judge later adjourned the trial until May 20.
Aziz, who walked slowly to the dock when the trial began and took the seat which was once occupied by Saddam, was returning to the public eye after five years in US custody.
He was known worldwide as the main spokesman for Saddam's brutal regime.
In 2003, he undertook a high-profile tour of European capitals for talks with political leaders and the late pope John Paul II in a bid to stop the US-led invasion.
Now he stands accused, with the others, of executing businessmen for hiking food prices when Iraq was under tight UN economic sanctions.
Prosecutors say the businessmen were arrested in Baghdad's wholesale markets and executed after a speedy trial in 1992. They also charge that the former regime then seized their money and property.
According to Iraqi law, if Aziz is found guilty he could be sentenced to life imprisonment or even death by hanging.
Aziz's son Ziad insists his father is innocent.
He has described the evidence as weak and aimed at preventing his father from benefiting from an amnesty law which stipulates that anyone held for a year without being referred for trial should be released.
Since he surrendered to US forces in April 2003, "my father has been in prison for five years... without being charged, tried or investigated," Ziad said.
Aziz, Chemical Ali and Saddam's half-brother, Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan, are the most high profile of the eight defendants.
Judge Abdel Rahman is the man who sentenced Saddam to death in 2006 for his role in the killing of 148 Shiite civilians from Dujail after an assassination attempt against him in the town in 1982.
Saddam was hanged on December 30, 2006. His cohorts Taha Yassin Ramadan, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad Ahmed al-Bandar met the same fate after being convicted over the Dujail killings.
Now in his early 70s, the urbane Aziz, with his mastery of English, put a cultured gloss on Saddam's regime in its dealings with the West.
He was born in Iraq's main northern city of Mosul to 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 circle of Saddam's Sunni Arab clansmen from the central region of Tikrit.
Although he was not implicated in any of the most notorious crimes of Saddam's regime, Aziz became one of its best-known advocates to the outside world and renowned for his anti-Western tirades.
His defence of Saddam continued even after his longtime master's execution when at a trial of some of the hanged president's lieutenants last year he took the witness box to praise him.
Little has been heard of him since he gave himself up a month after the invasion, except for occasional health-related statements from his defence lawyer and from his family.
In December 2006, his son said Aziz had suffered a heart attack in custody.
The other defendants include Sabbawi Ibrahim al-Hassan, chief of public security from 1991 to 1995 and Mizban Khudier Hadi, a former Revolutionary Command Council member.
Rounding out the group are Saddam's secretary Abid Hamid Mahmud, former finance minister Ahmed Hussein Khudier and former central bank governor Essam Rasheed Khuwaish.
Date created : 2008-04-30