Tariq Aziz gets death penalty

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Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: Tariq Aziz was a deputy prime minister and foreign minister under Saddam Hussein. And his fluent English and his fierce loyalty to Saddam made him a leading spokesman for the Iraqi leader. Now, Aziz is set to die the same way his former boss did. In a Baghdad courtroom today, Judge Mahmoud Sale al-Hassan delivered the ruling.


MULLINS: The judge sentenced Tariq Aziz to death by hanging. Aziz was convicted of persecuting Iraq's Shia parties during the 1980s and �90s. John Burns is a London Bureau chief for The New York Times. What has Aziz been found guilty of in this latest sentence?

JOHN BURNS: It's hard to underestimate the passion and ferocity of feeling over this issue which was reflected I thought in that brief clip of the Iraqi Supreme Court judge declaring sentence. Impartial justice in these circumstances was never likely to be achieved in my opinion, especially since American influence over the Iraqi Special Tribunal diminished as it was [INDISCERNIBLE] to do with American troop withdrawal. The issue here is the persecution of Iraq's Shia parties, predominantly during the early years of Saddam's 24 years in power. And the particular target of that was something called the Dawa Party whose leaders specifically Nouri Kamil al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister of Iraq, of course, are now in power and in a position to make their former persecutors pay. Mr. Maliki himself has said to me that at least 60 members of his own family including, if I recall correctly, at least one brother died in that program.

MULLINS: Tariq Aziz is probably, or at least prior to the war, was probably the Iraqi most recognizable in the upper ranks of government by Americans. The man with the thick glasses and the cigar often in his mouth. And he was a close ally in the 1980s to Washington, but that changed in the decade that followed. Can you just take us through his transformation?

BURNS: The first [INDISCERNIBLE] that comes to mind is something that's become, unfortunately something of a cliche, Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil. I spent a lot of time with Tariq Aziz in his travels around the world and in Baghdad and he was, if you knew nothing at all about what he was up to behind the veil so to speak, behind the curtain, you'd say he's rather a likeable avuncular kind of fellow. But the fact is that he was very much engaged at the highest levels of authority in Iraq, even if his principle function was as a spokesman, he was complicit in tyrannicide. And it could be argued, as he did to me, shortly before American troops seized Baghdad, that he was not directly involved in all of this. He said to me when I said to him one evening whilst we were actually enjoying a cigar in his office, in the Presidential Command Headquarters in Baghdad, and he was astonished to hear that he had been posted then, I'm talking about March 2003, on a State Department wanted list, people who committed war crimes. And he said, �Who me? I didn't kill anybody.� He said, �I never killed a single person.� He said, �Are they talking about Tariq Aziz, member of the Revolutionary Command Council, or are they talking about Tariq Aziz, individual?� Well, he said, �Of course, as member of the Revolutionary Command Council,� which was the sort of politburo, the Ba'ath Party. And he simply just rubber-stamped anything that Saddam wanted.

MULLINS: John, you've written several accounts of just how loyal through the years Tariq Aziz was to Saddam Hussein, including taking the stand in Saddam's defense after Saddam was arrested. And you say that he was saying things that would make Saddam smile because he was so much behind him and had his back. What was the reason for his loyalty?

BURNS: Well, he raised sycophancy to sort of championship, Olympic gold medal levels and it was all a bit, the boy's a bit of a puzzle. He was a Chaldean Christian, he is a Chaldean Christian from Mosul, so he was an improbable person to get to that sort of level of power in Saddam's Iraq.

MULLINS: I guess just in closing I'm curious about your own lasting impressions of Aziz, especially in the lead-up to the arrival of US forces. And I should say this is a man, perhaps because he spoke English, because he wasn't Saddam, he seemed to be a more approachable figure than Saddam, that I think some people even happen to have a soft spot for and maybe in part it's because he is elderly and very ill right now. He's appeared in court in his hospital gown with a hospital bracelet on, the plastic bracelet. In your experience with him, in knowing him, is there reason to have a soft spot for this man?

BURNS: I mean anybody who met him and lingered into the late night with him, and he always had either single malt whiskeys on offer and cigars, couldn't help feeling that he was a rather innocuous likeable fellow. He was the friendly face of their regime and so those of us who felt very endangered during those latter weeks of Saddam's regime, he also actively helped as a sort of buffer. But I think now, I think I thought then, that that was an illusion. In all tyrannical regimes in the last century or more, there have been people like this who have been engaged, have been complicit in extremely unpleasant things and the courts can't allow for that. That's not to say that he did directly kill anybody, but he was definitely complicit in quite a lot of this and he didn't do anything to stop it. And from my understanding of international law, that in itself is a crime.

MULLINS: John Burns, London Bureau chief for The New York Times, speaking to us about

Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister under Saddam Hussein who has been sentenced to death by hanging. John Burns, thanks.

BURNS: It's a pleasure.