BAGHDAD – Saddam Hussein's cousin and two other former regime officials were convicted Sunday of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to hang for the brutal crackdown that killed up to 180,000 Kurdish civilians and guerrillas two decades ago.
Two other defendants were sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the 1987-1988 crackdown, known as "Operation Anfal." A sixth defendant was acquitted for lack of evidence. Death sentences are automatically appealed.
The most notorious defendant was Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering the use of mustard gas and nerve agents against the Kurds, who had allegedly collaborated with the Iranians during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
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Al-Majid, once among the most powerful and feared men in Iraq, stood trembling in silence as Judge Mohammed Oreibi al-Khalifa read the verdict against him and imposed five death sentences.
"You had all the civil and military authority for northern Iraq," al-Khalifa said. "You gave the orders to the troops to kill Kurdish civilians and put them in severe conditions. You subjected them to wide and systematic attacks using chemical weapons and artillery. You led the killing of Iraqi villagers. You restricted them in their areas, burned their orchards, killed their animals. You committed genocide."
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Al-Majid said "Thanks be to God" as he was led from the courtroom.
Also sentenced to death were former defense minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai, who led the Iraqi delegation at the ceasefire talks that ended the 1991 Gulf War, and Hussein Rashid Mohammed, a former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces.
Mohammed interrupted the judge as the verdict was being read, insisting the defendants were defending Iraq from Kurdish rebels who collaborated with Iran.
"God bless our martyrs. Long live the brave Iraqi army. Long live Iraq. Long live the Baath party and long live Arab nations," he said.
Al-Tai insisted he was innocent, telling the judge "I will leave you to God" as he was led away from the court.
Farhan Mutlaq Saleh, former deputy director of operations for the armed forces, and Sabir al-Douri, former director of military intelligence, were sentenced to life in prison. Taher Tawfiq al-Ani, former governor of Mosul, was acquitted.
Saddam himself was among the defendants when the trial began last Aug. 21. But he was hanged four months later for his role in the deaths of more than 140 Shiite Muslims in the town of Dujail — the first trial against major figures from the ousted regime.
In northern Iraq, many Kurds welcomed the verdict, even though some were disappointed that Saddam did not have to face the gallows in the Anfal case.
In Halabja, where an estimated 5,000 Kurds were killed in a massive chemical attack in March 1988, a power outage prevented many people from watching the televised proceedings. But dozens gathered in cafes and restaurants which had generators to watch the verdicts.
"I would never miss this," said Peshtiwan Kamal, 24, who was too young to remember the attacks. "I always heard from my family what those criminals did to my people. So I just wanted to see how they would take the verdict and punishment."
A small rally was also held at a memorial garden in the Halabja cemetery.
"We thank God that we have lived to see our enemies being punished for all of the atrocities they have committed against our people," said Lukman Abdul-Qader, head of a local organization of chemical attack survivors.
Soran Ghasur, 92, who lost his father and a friend in the Halabja attack, was overcome with emotion as he embraced a headstone. "Those are my family," he sobbed.
As in the Dujail case, some human rights organizations questioned whether the Anfal proceedings complied with international standards for fairness.
Miranda Sissons of the International Center for Transitional Justice said the broad array of charges facing all the accused made it difficult to prepare a proper defense.
"It matters to the rule of law and the future of Iraq that individuals are sentenced after fair and critical trials that meet international standards," Sissons said. "My organization opposes the death penalty, but it's particularly important that if the death penalty is applied that it be done after a trial that meets international standards."
Besides Saddam, Four other members of the former regime have been executed for alleged atrocities against Iraqis during Saddam's nearly three-decades rule.
Besides Saddam, three other figures from the former regime have been executed — all in the Dujail case. They include Saddam's half brother and former intelligence chief, Barzan Ibrahim, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, who headed the Revolutionary Court that sentenced the Dujail victims to death. They were hanged in January.
Former vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, had been sentenced to life in prison for his role in Dujail but was hanged in March after an appeals court decided the life sentence was too lenient. Three other defendants were sentenced to 15 years in jail in the Dujail case, while one was acquitted.
Munir Hadad, a judge on the Iraqi high tribunal, said up to 15 officials were expected to go on trial in a few weeks in the suppression of a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in 1991.