Everyone knew what was coming. Iraqi VP Tariq al-Hashimi was found guilty, then sentenced to death, this week. Despite a pending appeal, it seems his political bloc has abandoned him, swapping a VP for a Deputy Prime Minister.
The verdict was hardly surprising. On Monday Iraq’s highest court sentenced Iraqi Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, to death for his alleged involvement in death squads involved in over 150 attacks over six years.
A warrant against al-Hashimi was issued late in 2011 - it sparked a political crisis in Iraq that pitted Shiite Muslim politicians against Sunni Muslim politicians - and the court case against him has been underway for four and a half months already, having started on May 15.
Avoiding arrest and describing the charges as politically motivated, al-Hashimi fled first to the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan and then onto Turkey, where he remained during the case; he was tried in absentia and Turkey has said it will not send him back to Iraq.
Indeed, from the first day of the trial, al-Hashimi predicted he would be sentenced to death. His son-in-law, Ahmed Qahtan, who is also his aide and office manager, was also sentenced to death. Qahtan is not in custody either and believed to be in Turkey too.
During the trial, a number of al-Hashimi’s security staff confessed to taking part in bombing and assassination under orders from al-Hashimi and Qahtan and as a result of this evidence, both men were convicted for their alleged parts in the murders of a female lawyer and an officer in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Taleb Balasem, together with his wife, Siham Ismail. A third murder charge against the general director at the Ministry of National Security was dismissed by the judge because of lack of evidence.
Al-Hashimi himself has said he won’t return to Iraq unless he can be guaranteed a fair trial that would not be influenced by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom he accuses of wielding too much influence and of pursuing a vendetta against him and other political opponents.
“Al-Hashimi can be given another trial if he rejects to his trial in absentia,” a spokesperson for the court, Abdul Sattar al-Berqdar, said. But even he noted that it would difficult for al-Hashimi, who is still the country’s Vice President, to make that decision. Under Iraqi law, it is his right to return to Iraq within 30 days and demand a retrial.
The political bloc to which al-Hashimi belongs – the Iraqiya list, which is the major opposition group in the Iraqi Parliament – held an emergency meeting after the verdict was issued. The bloc issued a statement condemning the judgment and also appealed to other political parties, such as the Kurdish politicians’ bloc and the Sadrists, to take their side in this argument.
However, pundits believe that something else every different is going on behind the scenes. They believe that the Iraqiya party has actually long since abandoned al-Hashimi.
Because of the wide variety of backgrounds of the various constituent parties, the Iraqiya bloc has been close to fracturing during its time in opposition. And, seeing al-Hashimi as a lost cause, they have decided instead to back Saleh al-Mutlaq, currently one of two Deputy Prime Ministers of Iraq.
Rather than having two of their members lose some of the most senior political jobs in the country, they have decided to back al-Mutlaq.
Al-Mutlaq, one of three deputy prime ministers, has been away from politics since the beginning of the year when he criticized al-Maliki, calling him a dictator. Al-Maliki sacked al-Mutlaq and he, in turn, boycotted Parliament. But he recently returned to work after what was described as a “historic meeting” between himself and al-Maliki.
And it is for this reason, that Iraqiya is supporting al-Hashimi with words rather than deeds.
Iraqiya called upon other political parties in Iraq to make “decisions that reflect the magnitude of this crisis and that maintain the national cohesion and social fabric of the country.”
Also making regretful noises about the court’s verdict against al-Hashimi was Jalal Talabani, the current President of Iraq, who is seen by many as an important mediator in the current political crisis.
"It is regrettable that at this specific time such a verdict is issued against him while he still occupies his post," said Talabani, who also noted that the decision might exacerbate political tensions and instability and hinder efforts at a national reconciliation between the current Prime Minister and his opponents, who have been trying to unseat him.
Then Talabani went on to say that just because he was expressing his opinion did not mean that he wanted to interfere with the judiciary or their decisions. “It only reflects the hopes of the President of the Republic and his quest to avoid anything that might stand in the way of the country’s progress.”
Noticeably Talabani didn’t make any reference to the issue of signing the al-Hashimi’s death warrant. The office of the Iraqi President must sign this document. But judging by the way Talabani acted when it came to sign former leader, Saddam Hussein’s death warrant, it seems unlikely that he’ll be keen to sign al-Hashimi’s.
In 2005, Talabani avoided signing Hussein’s death warrant, saying he was opposed to capital punishment, and he did the same again in 2010, when it came time to sign the death warrant of former deputy Prime Minister under Hussein, Tariq Aziz.
In the former case, one of his deputies signed Hussein’s death warrant and it’s thought that this time another deputy, Khudair al-Khuzaei, a Shiite Muslim who is apparently close to the Prime Minister al-Maliki, will sign on Talabani’s behalf, if the verdict is upheld after appeals.
Because as it is, the death warrant has yet to become final. Following the court’s verdict, the head of al-Hashimi’s defence team, Muayad al-Azzi, submitted an appeal to the Court of Appeal. Al-Azzi believes the verdict must be challenged because it was based on the testimony of some of al-Hashimi’s personal security staff, whom, he says, were tortured and their confessions obtained under duress.
“The whole case needs to be revisited,” al-Azzi told NIQASH. The lawyer remains optimistic about the possibility that the verdict might be overturned. “Everything was done far too quickly,” he said. “And the ruling wasn’t fair because the investigation was not fair.”
However the Iraqi people and their beleaguered Vice President won’t remain in suspense for too long. In only a few weeks the final decision by Iraq’s highest court will have been made.