With testimony of torture, betrayal and death, the trial of Iraq’s fugitive Sunni vice-president is reviving memories of sectarian killings with witnesses painting an ugly portrait of the underbelly of Iraqi politics.
Vice-president Tareq Hashemi, a Sunni Muslim politician in the Iraqiya bloc, fled Baghdad in December days after U.S. troops left when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government sought his arrest on charges he ran a death squad.
Hashemi’s case helped fuel a broader crisis in Iraq where Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political parties have wrangled for more than a year over how to share power in a feud that often threatens to spill over into sectarian violence.
International police agency, Interpol, is seeking Hashemi’s arrest at Iraq’s request after he was accused of orchestrating the killing of mainly Shiite victims. Hashemi denies the charges and says the trial is a witch-hunt by Maliki to consolidate his own position.
The initial case focuses on three murder charges involving the assassination of a general manager of the National Security Ministry, an officer in the Interior Ministry and a lawyer. But Hashemi, his son-in-law and dozens of their bodyguards are also charged with the deaths of six judges.
In court, defendants have given a chilling image of Hashemi, a former member of a Sunni Islamist party, and his son-in-law Ahmed Kahtan, at the heart of a gang that set up car bombs, assassinations with silenced weapons and other attacks.
Witnesses are also testifying about a network of coercion and threats that recruited members into violence.
One defendant, Rasha al-Husseini, who worked as Hashemi’s media office manager, said she was raped by the vice-president’s son-in-law, who used video of the incident to force her to take part in attacks.
“Ahmed Kahtan raped me in his house in the Green Zone when his wife was away,” Husseini told Reuters in an interview given in a holding cell outside the trial area, with permission of the court. “He taped the incident and threatened me with that tape.”
Husseini, 36, a Shiite, and a mother of an 8-year-old boy, said she was forced to drive three car bombs and another two cars carrying weapons to ensure they passed through the check points without inspection because she is a woman.
The stigma of rape and the threat of public exposure in a video tape would be especially difficult for a woman in a conservative Muslim country like Iraq.
Forced ‘under torture’
Hashemi and his son-in-law, who are both now in Turkey, reject charges made by other defendants. They say bodyguards and other workers in his office were tortured by security officials to force them to make fabricated charges condemning him.
They both say they are ready to face trial but not in a Baghdad court, which they believe is under the sway of Maliki in a judicial system tainted by political bias.
“I believe Rasha made these fake allegations under the torture and extortion. For my part, I totally deny all these allegations. I express my readiness to attend any court which can guarantee justice and personal protection,” Kahtan wrote to Reuters in response to the accusations.
Maliki’s allies say the Hashemi trial is not political. But many Iraqi Sunnis say they see a sectarian hand behind the case, accusing Maliki of shoring up his position at their expense.
When the charges were first made public, the government broadcast some defendants confessing to crimes live on television, a move Maliki’s critics said was at the least improper and at worst an attempt to stir sectarian tension.
Hashemi also rejected Husseini’s claims, saying she was forced to make the accusations. He said in a written response that the case was fabricated and politically motivated.
The three-judge panel at Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court listened to 15 defendants’ testimony in the last three sessions, all of them accusing Hashemi of orchestrating attacks and said Kahtan was the link between them and Hashemi.
Other defendants told Reuters they were bribed with offers of promotions to work for Hashemi’s men.
“He promised to make me the commander-in-chief of Rescue Police or Traffic Police in Baghdad, in return for my full cooperation and obedience,” said Brigadier Salam Kareem, another defendant, who is accused of leaking information about the police officers who prosecutors charge were later killed.
Defendants have told the court they were rewarded with $300 to $3,000 each time depending on their role in operations.
“When they fled Iraq, they left us in this ordeal,” Ahmed Shawqi, a former police officer and a defendant said outside the courtroom. “I helped Hashemi and helped criminals run away from the scene using my badge, and today I am here to help the victims’ families and ask them to forgive me.”
Hashemi has asked that the trial be held in a special court because he says the Baghdad judiciary will be used by Maliki. For now it appears unlikely Hashemi will return to Iraq to stand trial at all, leaving the court to decide on the charges in his absence. The maximum sentence is death.
“All the accusations are from the defendants just looking to get revenge,” Hakem Attiyah, Hashemi’s lawyer appointed by the court, said. “A sentence in absence will basically be a death sentence for the vice-president and Ahmed Kahtan.”
Violence in Iraq has eased since the war’s peak in 2006-2007 when death squads, insurgents and militias claimed thousands of victims in sectarian slaughter, especially in Baghdad where Sunnis and Shiites fled areas where they were persecuted.
But the political crisis and the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops in December have raised fears of a return to violence.
Iraq suffered one of its bloodiest days on Wednesday since U.S. troops left when bombers struck at Shiite pilgrims during a religious festival, killing more than 70 people.