BAGHDAD – Lawyers for Tariq Aziz, the longtime international face of Saddam Hussein's regime, said Monday they will seek a presidential pardon to spare him from execution.
Attorney Giovanni Di Stefano said Aziz's defense team would ask for the pardon instead of appealing his death sentence last month for Saddam-era persecution of Shiite Muslim political parties.
It is a risky legal move, considering Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has granted few, if any, pardons in his more than five-year tenure and could be prevented from doing so in this case. It comes amid pleas from the Vatican and several anti-death penalty nations in Europe for amnesty for Aziz, the only Christian in Saddam's inner circle.
"This could be the diplomatic solution people have been waiting for," Di Stefano said in an interview Monday.
Aziz "does not want special treatment because he is a Christian," said Di Stefano, who is based in Italy.
"He seeks the pardon as a step toward reconciliation of Iraq. Enough people have been killed, enough people have been executed."
A Talabani spokesman could not immediately be reached Monday evening for comment.
Aziz served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Saddam and was internationally known as the dictator's defender. He also was a fierce American critic after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but met in January 1991 with then-Secretary of State James A. Baker in Geneva in a failed attempt to prevent the Gulf War. He also met with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican just weeks before the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion in a bid to stop it.
Last week, the Iraqi president said he will not sign Aziz's death warrant, saying he believed it was wrong to execute the 74-year-old man. The only execution Talabani has tried to block — that of Saddam's defense minister, Sultan Hashim al-Taie — has been delayed for three years.
But there are ways in Iraq's constitution to bypass the president in capital cases — such as an act of parliament or the approval of one of Talabani's deputies. Additionally, the constitution says Iraq's president can only grant pardons "on the recommendation of the prime minister." In this case, that would be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite Dawa party was the main victim of the crimes Aziz was convicted of committing.
Di Stefano dismissed the constitutional limits as "no problem" and predicted the pardon would be granted.
Friday marks the end of a 30-day period in which Aziz could have appealed the sentence. All capital cases in Iraq are automatically reviewed by an appeals court.
But a Justice Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Aziz's case candidly said appeals filed by defendants usually raise more specific objections than the government generally considers — and therefore stand a greater chance of being granted.
If the death sentence stands, Aziz could be hanged at any time. Iraqi High Tribunal spokesman Mohammed Abdul-Sahib said the appeals court has an indefinite period of time to decide whether to uphold or reverse the sentence.
Di Stefano said appealing would have been "a total waste of time" because the court was unlikely to reverse the sentence. The lawyer said Aziz maintains he had little to do with Saddam's oppressive campaign against Shiites, and no witnesses were produced at trial to prove otherwise. "If the trial was unfair, then imagine the appeal," di Stefano said.
Aziz, who has a history of diabetes and heart disease and has trouble walking, has been in jail for more than seven years and has said he expects to die there. He was convicted in two other cases after surrendering to U.S. forces about a month after the war started in 2003.
Yacoub reported from Amman, Jordan.