Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said on Wednesday he will not sign an execution order for Tareq Aziz, the former deputy of dictator Saddam Hussein sentenced to death last month over the persecution of Islamic parties.
"No, I will not sign the execution order for Tareq Aziz, because I am a socialist," Talabani told French television France 24 in an interview.
"I sympathize with Tareq Aziz because he is an Iraqi Christian. Moreover he is an old man who is over 70," he said.
Iraq's high tribunal passed a death sentence on Aziz, once the international face of Saddam's government, in late October.
The Vatican and Russia both called on Iraq not to carry out the death sentence on humanitarian grounds, noting his age and the fact he has health problems.
Aziz was well known in foreign capitals and at the United Nations before Saddam's downfall.
It was not clear whether Talabani's opposition to signing the death sentence would prevent it from being carried out.
Iraq executed Saddam in 2006 despite Talabani's apparent refusal then to sign, and the president's powers since his re-election last week are not as the same as they were during his last term.
A leading Iraqi lawyer said he believed Aziz's death sentence could not legally be carried out without Talabani's signature on the execution order.
"According to the Iraqi constitution, the president of the state has the power to ratify death sentences before they are carried out," said the lawyer, Tariq Harb.
"Death sentences cannot be implemented without the approval of the president. This is what is in the constitution."
Last year, an Iraqi court sentenced Aziz to 15 years in prison for his part in the killings of dozens of merchants in 1992 and to a further seven years for his role in the forced displacement of Kurds from northern Iraq during Saddam's rule.
He surrendered to invading U.S. forces in April 2003 but was handed over to Iraqi prison authorities this year.