BAGHDAD – The terror trial of Iraq's fugitive Sunni vice president was postponed Thursday as his lawyers appealed to have parliament create a special court to hear the case that has touched off a political crisis and could deepen the nation's sectarian divide.
Tariq al-Hashemi, one of the nation's highest-ranking Sunni politicians, was not in court to face charges that he ran death squads that targeted government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims.
Instead, his lawyers filed motions to have Iraq's Supreme Court direct parliament to set up a special tribunal for high-ranking officials. No opening arguments or evidence were presented on Thursday, and reporters sat in the empty courtroom for several hours before being told the case was postponed until May 10.
The Shiite-led government accuses al-Hashemi of links to about 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks. It says the death squads were largely composed of the vice president's bodyguards and other employees.
The vice president is in Turkey, and has denied the charges that he calls politically motivated.
The trial was to focus on three charges: the killings of officials at the National Security and Interior ministries and the killing of a lawyer. The maximum sentence in Iraqi terror cases is the death penalty.
Al-Hashemi has refused to return to trial in Baghdad, where he claims he will not get a fair hearing. Many Iraqis assume that courts often follow directives from the Shiite-led government.
Attorney Muyyiad Obeid al-Ezzi, the head of al-Hashemi's defense team, told reporters that the Iraqi constitution allows the nation's president to demand that parliament create a special court to hear cases against senior government officials. If it is allowed, this court could be perceived as more sympathetic to al-Hashemi since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is a Kurd and the speaker of parliament is a Sunni.
Facing arrest in December, al-Hashemi fled to Iraq's self-ruled northern Kurdish region, which has its own security forces, and where officials have refused to hand him over to Baghdad.
The vice president has since traveled to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — three nations that have tense relations with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
After years of sectarian bloodshed, Iraqis are not overly shocked that some of their officials might have links to terrorism. But al-Hashemi's trial has been viewed with skepticism among many Sunnis and Shiites who question why the vice president was singled out.
Many are eagerly awaiting the chance to see the evidence brought against al-Hashemi. Authorities say that some bodyguards have confessed to the terror plots that targeted police officers, government officials and judges with assassination.
Al-Hashemi meanwhile says that bodyguards were tortured to extract confessions, and two died under torture — accusations that the government denies.
Al-Hashemi is a member of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political bloc, which won the most seats in the 2010 parliamentary election but was outmaneuvered in post-vote negotiations for the right to seat the new government.