BAGHDAD – An Iraqi court on Thursday unexpectedly convicted the country's fugitive Sunni vice president on charges of instigating bodyguards to assassinate a senior government official and sentenced him to death.
The verdict was the second death sentence for Tariq al-Hashemi in less than two months, and is likely to stoke further resentment among Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims against the Shiite-led government.
The sentence is unlikely to be carried out any time soon because al-Hashemi has exiled himself in neighboring Turkey. He fled Iraq in December 2011 after the government accused him of playing a role in numerous attacks.
The criminal court in Baghdad also sentenced al-Hashemi's son-in-law, Ahmed Qahtan, to death on the same charges, said Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar. He said the two men were convicted of encouraging bodyguards to kill an official by sticking a bomb to his car.
Al-Hashemi's top lawyer said he was surprised to hear about the ruling because the vice president's legal team had not been made aware of this case. The attorney, Muayad Obeid al-Ezzi, immediately questioned the legality of the decision.
"None of al-Hashemi's lawyers attended this trial, which was done quickly. What happened today is another negative sign that the judiciary system in this country is not fair," he said. "Nobody contacted us regarding this trial, and this proves again that the cases against al-Hashemi are politically motivated."
Al-Hashemi is a longtime opponent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim. The government has accused the vice president of playing a role in 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks from 2005 to 2011. That was a period when Iraq was mired in retaliatory sectarian violence that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime.
The allegations sparked a political crisis when they were announced the day after U.S. troops withdrew from the country last December.
Al-Hashemi has denied the charges, which he says are politically motivated.
An aide to al-Hashemi said the vice president is currently in Saudi Arabia, where he was taking part in the annual hajj pilgrimage. The aide downplayed the latest conviction, calling it part of "an ongoing farce." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he concerned he might also face charges.
Al-Hashemi and Qahtan were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging in an earlier case on Sept. 9. In that ruling, the men were found guilty of organizing the murders of a Shiite security official and a lawyer who had refused to help the vice president's allies in terror cases.
A wave of bombings and shootings erupted across Iraq just hours after al-Hashemi's last sentence was announced, killing at least 92 people in one of the deadliest days this year.
There was no immediate word of violence following Thursday's court decision.
A ruling had been expected to come as early as Sunday in yet another case against al-Hashemi involving an alleged car bombing attempt. Thursday's decision was not connected to that trial, al-Ezzi said.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed reporting.