Lawyers for fugitive Iraqi VP quit case in protest

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Lawyers for Iraq's fugitive Sunni vice president charged with running death squads that targeted Shiite officials and pilgrims quit the case on Sunday in protest after judges would not let them present evidence at the trial.

Tariq al-Hashemi's defense team demanded to be allowed to pull phone records and appointment calendars to help refute earlier testimony that the vice president and his son-in-law had ordered bodyguards to kill security forces and government officials.

Lawyer Muayad Obeid al-Ezzi said the records could prove that al-Hashemi, one of Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni officials in the Shiite-led government, had either been out of the country or not in communication with the bodyguards at the time he allegedly ordered the assassinations.

But a three-judge panel rejected the request, and ruled that last week's testimony by three bodyguards who swore they were given money to kill al-Hashemi's enemies was strong enough to negate any further evidence.

The judges also said al-Hashemi could have arranged for the attacks while he was outside the country.

With that, al-Ezzi and the rest of the defense team walked out.

"We decided to give up the case after the court ignored our demands," al-Ezzi said over the telephone after leaving the courtroom. "We do not want to be part of this unfair trial."

For months, al-Hashemi has claimed he will not get a fair trial on the terror charges, which he denies and calls politically motivated. He is in Istanbul and has refused to defend himself in Baghdad's criminal court.

The case threatens to paralyze Iraq's government by fueling simmering Sunni and Kurdish resentments against the Shiite prime minister, who critics claim is monopolizing power.

It also has strained relations between Iraq and several of its mainly Sunni neighbors, including the Gulf states and Turkey.

Last week, three of al-Hashemi's former bodyguards testified that they were ordered and paid to kill security officials and plant roadside bombs. They said the orders either came from al-Hashemi's son-in-law, who worked as his office manager, or from the vice president himself.

In an Associated Press interview a few days later, al-Hashemi said he believes his bodyguards were pressured into testifying, and hinted then he would withdraw his defense in the trial that he claims amounts to a legal railroading.

If convicted, al-Hashemi could face the death penalty. Judges on Sunday appointed two new lawyers for al-Hashemi and his son-in-law.

Al-Ezzi said his defense team was willing to return to court — but only of the evidence is allowed and the judges agree to transfer the case to a special tribunal appointed by parliament.