BAGHDAD // An Iraqi court yesterday found the nation's Sunni vice president guilty of running death squads against the security forces and Shiites, and sentenced him to death in his absence - a ruling that is likely to further exacerbate sectarian tensions.
Tariq Al Hashemi, who has denied the charges, fled the country after the terror allegations were levelled against him in December. He is now in Turkey.
The charges against him have fuelled simmering Sunni and Kurdish resentment of the Shiite prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, and led to a near-paralysis of the government.
Nouri Aldulaimi, a security expert, yesterday said that the sentence would aggravate the security situation in Iraq. "This will not help improve trust with Iraqi political partners or help Iraqi security elements to work hard on providing security," he said.
But Ali Husam Jasim, a youth ministry employee from Basra, said: "It was a fair decision. Al Hashemi was a murderer. This is what evidences said. He should be standing at the court to defend himself against the crimes listed."
Iraq's Shiite-led government accused Mr Al Hashemi of playing a role in 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks between 2005 and 2011 - most of which were allegedly carried out by his bodyguards and other employees.
The trial, which opened in May, heard testimony from the vice president's former bodyguards, who said they were ordered and paid to carry out the attacks. Government forces who found weapons when they raided Mr Al Hashemi's house and that of his son-in-law also testified, as did relatives of the victims.
The charges against the vice president span the worst years of bloodshed that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, as retaliatory sectarian attacks between Sunni and Shiite militants pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Mr Al Hashemi has been in office since 2006. He has claimed that his bodyguards were likely tortured or otherwise coerced into testifying against him.
Qadir Aleem, a teacher from the Sunni-dominated city of Adhamiya, said the verdict was an indication of how little power Sunnis have in the country.
"Our leaders have become marginalised in power, with no hope to maintain Sunni rights in a government that is dominated by Iran and its loyalty to Iran," he said. "We are living with no hope in a country which has no more place for Sunnis."
Mr Al Hashemi flew in April to Istanbul from Qatar, where the minister of state in charge of foreign affairs had refused an extradition request. Turkey has called efforts by Mr Al Maliki to arrest the vice president "unacceptable."
Mr Al Hashemi became one of Iraq's vice presidents in April 2006, the same month that his brother and sister were shot dead in separate attacks. Interpol said in May that it had issued an international red notice for his arrest on suspicion of "guiding and financing terrorist attacks".
It said the notice, its highest possible alert, was issued under an Iraqi warrant "as part of an investigation in which security forces seized bombing materials and arrested individuals".
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Bloomberg News