Saddam Hussein's chief lawyer implored world leaders on Thursday to prevent the United States from handing over the ousted leader to Iraqi authorities for execution, saying he should enjoy protection from his enemies as a "prisoner of war."
Iraq's highest court on Tuesday rejected Saddam's appeal against his conviction and death sentence for the killing of 148 Shiites in the northern city of Dujail in 1982. The court said the former president should be hanged within 30 days.
"According to the international conventions, it is forbidden to hand a prisoner of war to his adversary," Saddam's lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi said.
"I urge all the international and legal organizations, the United Nations secretary-general, the Arab League and all the leaders of the world to rapidly prevent the American administration from handing the president to the Iraqi authorities," he told The Associated Press.
Cardinal Renato Martino, Pope Benedict XVI's top prelate for justice issues and a former Vatican envoy to the U.N., condemned the death sentence in a newspaper interview published Thursday, saying capital punishment goes against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
After Saddam's death sentence was handed down last month, Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, urged Iraq to ensure a fair appeals process and to refrain from executing Saddam even if the sentence is upheld.
Some international legal observers and human rights groups have also called Saddam's trial unfair because of alleged interference by the Shiite-dominated government.
An official close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said Saddam would remain in a U.S. military prison until he is handed over to Iraqi authorities on the day of his execution. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the media.
A top government official disputed the court's ruling that Saddam must be hanged within 30 days, saying the execution should be held after that time period. The comment comes amid debate over other legal procedures such as whether the presidency is required to approve the execution.
"The law does not say within 30 days, it says after the lapse of 30 days," said Busho Ibrahim, deputy justice minister. There was no immediate explanation for the conflicting claims.
Al-Dulaimi, Saddam's lawyer, warned that turning over Saddam to the Iraqis would increase the sectarian violence that already is tearing the country apart.
"If the American administration insists in handing the president to the Iraqis, it would commit a great strategic mistake which would lead to the escalation of the violence in Iraq and the eruption of a destructive civil war," he said.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said there was concern about the potential for violence in carrying out the execution.
"I'm sure the Iraqi government is thinking through that and working with the coalition in terms of the impact that could have."