Iraq Trial Begins for Saddam Lieutenant Accused of Ordering Merchants' Executions

An Iraqi court on Tuesday began hearing the case against Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein's best-known lieutenants, over charges of allegedly ordering the execution of dozens of merchants for profiteering.

Aziz is one of eight defendants accused of executing the 42 merchants in 1992. If convicted, they could be sentenced to death.

Aziz, 72, walked into the court room, leaning on a walking stick. Other defendants include Saddam's half brother Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan and the dictator's cousin known as "Chemical Ali," who faces a pending death sentence in another case.

But Ali, whose full name is Ali Hassan al-Majid, did not attend the opening hearing due to health reasons, Judge Raouf Abdul-Rahman said.

The judge then adjourned the trial until May 20, citing al-Majid's absence. He said doctors had signed a medical report saying that al-Majid was sick and needed some three weeks to recover.

The U.S. military said Monday that al-Majid is under medical care at an American detention facility after suffering a heart attack earlier this month.

The trial had been scheduled to open at 10:15 a.m., but was pushed back to 5 p.m.

Abdul-Rahman, the judge, said this was due to "organizational and procedural measures," because the defendants had not been brought to the courthouse on time.

Aziz's Italian lawyer said in a statement Tuesday that Aziz has denied the accusations.

"I have spoken to Mr. Aziz on this matter two weeks ago and I recorded our conversation. Mr. Aziz is not guilty of any offense whatsoever," said Giovanni Di Stefano, who was also one of several non-Arab attorneys who consulted for the core team defending Saddam Hussein.

Di Stefano said Aziz's lawyers have not received any notification of any court hearings.

The trial deals with the execution of 42 merchants accused by Saddam's government of being behind a sharp increase in food prices when the country was under strict U.N. sanctions.

The merchants were rounded up over two days in July 1992 from Baghdad's wholesale markets and charged with manipulating food supplies to drive up prices at a time when many Iraqis were suffering economically. All 42 were executed hours later after a quick trial.

Another judge with the Iraqi High Tribunal, which is prosecuting offenses of the former regime, said the charges against the defendants would include war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. If convicted, the men could face a sentence of death by hanging.

The judge — who declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to discuss the information — said Aziz was being prosecuted because he signed the execution orders against the merchants as a member of Saddam's Revolutionary Command Council, a rubber stamp group that approved the dictator's decisions.

Another defense attorney, Badee Izzat Aref, has said Aziz is ailing and still suffers from the effects of a stroke he had prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Aziz was the only Christian among Saddam's mostly Sunni Muslim inner coterie.

He was No. 25 on the U.S. most-wanted list after the invasion. He surrendered to American forces on April 25, 2003, and has been in custody ever since.

Saddam was sentenced to death for the killing of 148 Shiites and hanged in 2006.