Foul play, or justice? These are different characterizations that have surrounded last week’s verdict of Tariq Aziz by Judge Mahmoud Saleh Al-Hassan. Aziz, who is to be hanged for his role in the execution of 42 merchants, was most notably Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister from 1983 to 1991 and his deputy prime minister until the fall of the regime in 2003. Tariq Aziz was also previously convicted for being a part of the campaign involved in the persecution and killing of members of the Shi’ite opposition, the Kurdish minority as well as members of the Shi’ite Dawa Party.
Seventy-four-year-old Aziz was first brought to trial in April 2008 for the execution of the merchants who had allegedly manipulated food prices in July 1992 during the height of the country’s economic problems due to UN sanctions. Although he has always denied the charges, Aziz has already been sentenced to 15 years in prison for this crime, and seven more for the forced displacement of Kurds. He continues to await trial regarding the massacre of Kurds in 1982. Precedent does not bode well for Mr. Aziz, as those same cases have already led to the death sentences of two of Saddam Hussein’s half brothers, Watban Ibrahim Al-Hassan and Sabawi Ibrahim Al-Hassan.
Despite Aziz’s involvement with Saddam Hussein’s regime, whose human rights track record is abysmal to say the least, accusations have been made that the execution order is tantamount to a show trial aimed to further consolidate the image of the Ba’ath party as the source of all of Iraq’s problems.
More importantly perhaps, two issues point to Aziz’s trial as a political maneuver rather than an exercise of justice. First, is the questionable independence of Iraq’s judiciary. Second, is the impact that sentencing to death a prominent Ba’ath party member will have on Al-Maliki’s ability to build a strong coalition amongst the Ba’ath party’s former targets.
The issue of Iraq’s judiciary was raised earlier this year when, prior to the 7 March elections, hundreds of candidates were disqualified for their links to the Ba’ath party, putting into question the durability of Iraq’s fledgling democracy and particularly the judiciary’s complicity in potentially unjust elections. Although an agreement was reached to end efforts of deba’athification in government ranks, there are alternative ways of purging elements of Hussein’s legacy apart from excluding former Ba’ath party members to run for office. Given the judiciary’s track record as a comprised authority, expecting an objective decision regarding Aziz’s crimes, some argue, is naïve.
Although Aziz is no longer in politics—having been held in custody since he turned himself over to American forces in 2003—his position as a prominent member of the Ba’ath party and Hussein’s administration no doubt places him and the sentencing of his crimes in a conspicuously symbolic position. This would be particularly true were it the government’s aim to demonstrate that it is taking a hard-line approach to punishing the Ba’ath party for its past injustices. Even more incriminatory is the fact that Al-Maliki’s Dawa party was once targeted by the Ba’ath party.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend, so the saying goes, and it appears as though this is the most successful policy that Al-Maliki has been able to adopt in his attempt to secure the position of Iraq’s next prime minister. As Huffington Post contributor James Denselow argues, “politics in Iraq has become increasingly sectarian over the past year and Maliki has been forced to court more radical Shi'a parties in order to get over the finishing line in forming a workable coalition.” A death penalty for the perceived enemy of these radical Shi’a parties is just one potential motivation behind any meddling that may have gone on behind the scenes of Judge Al-Hassan’s decision.
Nevertheless, claims of politicking have been attributed to sources beyond securing Maliki’s premiership. Azziz’s Jordanian-based lawyer has claimed that the intention of the verdict was to “divert attention from recent revelations about prisoner abuse by Iraqi security forces contained in US military documents released last week by the whistleblower site WikiLeaks,” reported NPR. Still others have linked Al-Maliki’s recent visit to Iran as another factor responsible for the death sentence of Tariq Aziz, claiming that as the foreign minister during the bitter Iran-Iraq war, Aziz instilled enough dislike amongst Iran’s ruling elite to incite their involvement during his trial. Despite the motivations at present, however, these allegations remain unverifiable.
What is certain is the value that Aziz’s position signified in Hussein’s administration. Tariq Aziz was born Mikhail Yhanna in Mosul, Iraq to a Christian Arab family, later changing his name to Tariq Aziz. This would make him one of few Christians in a predominantly Sunni Muslim government that was dominated by members of the Tikriti clan. His family came from a humble background—his father was a waiter—though he was able to study English literature at the University of Baghdad before pursuing a career in journalism. His first significant venture into politics was becoming the editor of the Ba’ath Party’s newspaper.
While his first ministerial role was in the '70s as Iraq’s minister of information, he quickly rose through the ranks, managing to escape the purges typical of paranoid dictators. In 1977, Tariq Aziz joined the Revolutionary Command Council, the committee of Ba’ath officials that effectively ruled the country.
The most significant aspect of his career and upbringing was what Aziz managed to do as foreign minister. Notably, Aziz won American support for Iraq’s eight-year conflict with Iran, while maintaining economic ties with the Soviet Union. His adept qualities as a diplomat for a relatively unpopular nation became apparent once again through the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States following Aziz’s meetings with President Ronald Regan and Secretary of State James Baker.
Talented as he was in the game of balancing the realist calculations of the US, however, his refusal to accept a letter by President George Bush to Saddam Hussein is credited with signaling the inevitability of the US’s invasion of Iraq. Not even divine intervention, or his meetings with Pope John Paul II in the spring of 2003, were able to avert the US’s apprehension of the government he represented.
Now, Aziz continues to represent the negativity associated with Saddam Hussein’s government. Much to his disappointment, the results of his trial will be more a reflection of what is politically useful for the future of some Iraqi politicians than a demonstration of the importance judicial decisions have when it comes to reconciling countries like Iraq, torn apart by war and sectarianism.