Saddam lieutenant pleads to Pope for mercy
By Malcolm Moore in Rome, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 12:02am GMT 21/01/2007
Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister of Iraq, has thrown himself on the mercy of the Pope in an attempt to secure his release from US custody.
Aziz faces a possible death penalty after being charged on Friday with ordering the deaths of tens of thousands of Shia Muslims who rebelled in 1991.
Last week he sent a handwritten plea to the Vatican, asking Pope Benedict XVI to act as a guarantor for him to be released on bail. The 70-year-old, a Catholic who has been in custody since his arrest by American forces in April 2003, asked that he be allowed to live in Italy while awaiting trial.
Jaafar al-Moussawi, an Iraqi prosecutor, said Aziz was among 102 officials of Saddam Hussein's regime who were responsible for the Iraqi army crushing an uprising by Shia and Kurdish rebels.
In a letter dated January 12 this year, and addressed from Camp Cropper at Baghdad airport, Aziz wrote: "I, Tariq Aziz, herein send my compliments and greetings to his Holiness Pope Benedict and request of the Holy See and His Holiness all the assistance in my application for provisional release and if his Holiness thinks appropriate to act as guarantor for me… that I can live in peace in Italy until such time as any trial is held by the Iraqi authorities."The letter was written by his Italian lawyer, Giovanni di Stefano, and signed by Aziz. The lawyer delivered the letter to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State, and Monsignor Gabriele Giordano Caccia, a senior official in the Roman Curia. Mr di Stefano said that the Vatican was considering the request.
Unlike the rest of Saddam's cabinet, Aziz is a Chaldean Catholic, from a Babylonian branch of the Church which maintains full ties with Rome. He was received in a private audience by Pope John Paul II on the eve of the Iraq war in February 2003.
Mr di Stefano said: "They said they understood it is a humanitarian issue and that the Holy Father will give consideration to the request."
As Saddam Hussein's foreign spokesman for more than a decade, Aziz was the best-known face of the Iraqi regime abroad. He watched the execution of Saddam on television, in the prison complex where they had both been held. Afterwards he said that he was deeply saddened by the death of the dictator.
"After the death of Saddam Hussein, nothing in life is a joy," he told The Sunday Telegraph through his lawyer.
"Saddam was a friend, a colleague, a boss and I loved him as a person. It was not just a job for me. I loved Saddam and his imagination and view of Iraq. The day he was killed, Iraq died with him."
From his cell at Camp Cropper Aziz said that, despite the possibility of a trial, he was not concerned about the threat of execution. "I am not worried about my life," he said.
He said Saddam's execution was the only time he had been given access to news during his incarceration, other than when the Iraqi parliament was elected.
Aziz, dressed in a polo shirt, a grey and green tracksuit and a woollen hat, has been allowed to smoke his trademark cigars while in jail. Mr di Stefano said he had delivered a box of Romeo & Juliet Cuban cigars during the visit.
The lawyer, who has flown to Baghdad this weekend and is due to meet Aziz again today, disclosed a charge sheet obtained from the US army and signed by Judge Moneer Hadad, one of the justices present at Saddam's death.
The sheet states that Aziz was part of the Revolutionary Commanding Council which issued a resolution in 1980 "taking the nationality from Shia Ufaili Kurd and exiling from Iraq". Saddam was found guilty of the same charge at his trial.
Mr di Stefano said it was "unacceptable" that Aziz had been held since April 2003 without trial.
"The only time that Tariq Aziz has been in a courtroom in 44 months was when he testified in the Saddam Hussein trial," he said. "He was not even told what he was being held for."
According to section 109a of Iraq's law on criminal proceeding, passed in 1971, prisoners may be released on bail providing that a foreign government guarantees they will return for trial. Mr di Stefano said the law had not been amended or superseded since, and that it had been used to try Saddam. Russia has indicated that it may support Aziz's bid for bail. Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, said: "Government agencies should provide assistance. This is not a political issue. The issue is purely humanitarian."
Mr di Stefano claimed Aziz was suffering from a heart condition and emphysema.
"He is not getting medical attention. They will not execute him, but if he does not get medical attention he will die," he warned. "When I saw him on January 3, I had to call a doctor because he was coughing up blood."
Mr di Stefano has lodged a bail application so that Aziz can seek treatment, and called upon "any medical specialists in the UK" to volunteer their services.
He said Aziz, who was implicated in the UN oil-for-food scandal, had been interrogated by the United States, the UK and the Iraqi administration, but that "99 per cent of what they asked him was about oil-for-food and George Galloway".
Mr Galloway, the former Labour and now Respect Party MP, has denied profiting from the oil-for-food programme. Mr di Stefano also represented Saddam's co-accused, Barzan al-Tikriti and Awad Ahmed Banda, before their executions last Sunday. He claimed that al-Tikriti, Saddam's half-brother, had not received adequate treatment for spinal cancer. "That is why his head snapped off when they hanged him," he said. "He would have been dead in six months anyway".
Mr di Stefano has a history of controversy. He represented Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia who died while on trial for war crimes, Gary Glitter, the glam rock star jailed for child molestation in Vietnam, and Kenneth Noye, the M25 killer.
The Law Society has previously refused to recognise him as a solicitor.