Court says Aziz held in Iraqi custody for two years

BAGHDAD, June 29, 2006 (AFP) – The Iraqi High Tribunal on Thursday said former deputy premier Tareq Aziz has been in the custody of Iraq’s judiciary for the past two years and that he was safe.

The tribunal issued a statement in response to concerns from an Italian lawyer who is defending Aziz, Giovanni Di Stefano, who said he fears for his client’s life in Iraqi custody.

The chief investigative judge of the tribunal Raed al-Juhi, in a statement, said that Aziz’s custody — as in the case of former president Saddam Hussein — has been the responsibility of the Iraqi judiciary ever since June 30, 2004.

That was the date the transitional government of Iraq’s then premier Iyad Allawi and the US-led coalition forces decided on the handover.

"The coalition forces ensure the safety and the protection of the prisoners whereas, from the legal point of view, they are under the authority of Iraqi justice," the court said, citing the agreement.

Aziz, 70, was the spokesman of deposed president Saddam Hussein and the most widely known face on the international scene representing the former dictator and his Baathist regime.

He surrendered to US troops in April 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad, and his family has constantly appealed for his release on the grounds of deteriorating health.

Stefano and an Italian colleague, Domenico Marinelli, said Monday the safety of Aziz and other prisoners of Saddam’s regime could be compromised if they were handed over to Iraqi authorities.

The lawyers said they had received information that the United States and two of its allies in Iraq — Britain and Italy — planned to transfer all their detainees to the custody of the new Shiite-led Iraqi government.

"Since physical custody is about to be be transferred to the Iraqi government of all detainees, my concern is that Tareq Aziz will be punished by the Iraqi government well outside any judicial process," Di Stefano said.

According to the Iraqi tribunal, a "good part of the investigation of the (Aziz) file has been completed".

Aziz has been charged with killing and torturing Shiites after a 1991 uprising. He is also being held responsible for the execution of 40 traders, just 48 hours after their arrest, and the amputation of the hands of 11 other convicts.