BAGHDAD – An Iraqi court handed the country's fugitive Sunni vice president a new death sentence on Sunday after finding him guilty of ordering his bodyguards to attack Shiite pilgrims, the latest verdict in a trial that has fueled resentment among Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority.
It was the third case in which Tariq al-Hashemi was sentenced to death since last spring, when judicial authorities started to try him on terrorism charges. All verdicts have been delivered in absentia, since al-Hashemi is in exile in Turkey after fleeing in December 2011 when the Shiite-led government leveled accusations against him.
The court also sentenced his son-in-law, Ahmed Qahtan, to death on similar charges: planning to attack pilgrims by a car bomb last December in southeastern Baghdad. Security forces reportedly foiled the attack and seized the car. All the five bodyguards who testified said they got their orders from Qahtan, who allegedly told them that he was passing al-Hashemi's orders.
On Thursday, the same court unexpectedly sentenced both men to death on charges of instigating bodyguards to assassinate a senior official at the Interior Ministry. Al-Hashemi's defense team said it had not been made aware of the proceedings.
"We are mulling boycotting trials from now on because the court didn't inform us of that (Thursday) trial," said defense team leader Muayad Obeid al-Ezzi, who added that two new trials will start early next month.
The first death sentence came in September, for masterminding killings of a lawyer and two government security officials which was submitted as one case. Al-Hashemi was found not guilty on one count, but guilty on two others. All sentences are to be carried out by hanging.
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.
He has dismissed the charges as a political vendetta pursued by his long-time rival, al-Maliki.
Also Sunday, a provincial official said authorities have arrested a police officer in charge of a prison from which scores of inmates, including as many as 47 convicted al-Qaida militants, escaped last September with what the government has acknowledged was help from inside.
Ahmed al-Shaalan, deputy head of Salahuddin provincial council said Col. Laith al-Sagmani was arrested few days ago and was sent to Baghdad. He's accused of failure to carry out his duties during the jailbreak, al-Shaalan added.
Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.