BAGHDAD (AP) — The terror trial of Iraq’s fugitive vice president accused of running death squads started Tuesday in Baghdad with witnesses testifying how their relatives were killed in attacks that the authorities have linked to the country’s top Sunni official.
Tariq al-Hashemi was not in court for the opening of the proceedings that were already twice delayed.
Al-Hashemi, who is currently in Turkey, has denied the allegation he orchestrated attacks against Shiite pilgrims and government officials, saying the charges against him are politically motivated and that he would not receive a fair trial in Baghdad’s criminal court.
In front of a three-judge panel, the victims’ relatives on Tuesday described the killings of security officials and lawyers between 2010 and 2011. They said they did not witness the attacks, and only complained against al-Hashemi after hearing the accusations against him in Iraqi media.
Journalists were ordered to leave the court during the testimony of a fourth witness, identified only as a former employee in al-Hashemi’s media office.
The case against al-Hashemi threatens to paralyze Iraq’s government by fueling simmering Sunni and Kurdish resentments against the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who critics claim is monopolizing power.
The judicial panel rejected arguments by al-Hashemi’s lawyers that the case should be further delayed while Iraq’s Supreme Court weighs whether to move it to a special tribunal.
Earlier this month, Interpol issued a so-called "red notice" on al-Hashemi, which puts member countries on alert that he is wanted for arrest in Baghdad. But Turkey, which has provided sanctuary to al-Hashemi and is on tense terms with his opponents in the Iraqi government, is hesitant to pursue the Sunni vice president and says he is in the country for medical treatment.
Al-Maliki’s camp has blasted Ankara over the stance.
"Turkey is taking a position in supporting a symbol of terrorism in Iraq," said Saad al-Mutalibi, a lawmaker in the Shiite-dominated State of Law political bloc that al-Maliki heads. "We do hope that Turkey will reconsider this issue, otherwise Turkey will be considered as a country that is harboring terrorism."
Tuesday’s session in Baghdad was expected to focus on the killings of officials at the Ministry of National Security and Interior and the slaying of a lawyer, incidents that happened in 2010 and 2011. If convicted of the terror charges, al-Hashemi could face the death penalty.
The Sunni vice president has been a longtime critic of al-Maliki, whose government issued a warrant for al-Hashemi’s arrest the day after U.S. troops left Iraq last December.
Some see the trial as another political power battle in Iraq.
"As far as I’m concerned, the issue of al-Hashemi is more political than a legal one," said Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq of the Iraqiya political bloc, which opposes al-Maliki.