x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Family fears for Tariq Aziz

The relatives of Saddam Hussein's deputy, who has been jailed by US forces in Baghdad for six years, have not heard from the ailing 73-year-old for weeks.

Ziad Aziz, the son of the former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, fears his father is dead.
Ziad Aziz, the son of the former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, fears his father is dead.

AMMAN // In the not too distant past, Tariq Aziz was one of the most prominent politicians on the planet. He held summits with world leaders, he cut deals with American presidents and played a role in the rise and fall of the Middle East's most feared regime. But the former deputy Iraqi prime minister has spent the past six years in a US prison in Baghdad and, today, his own family does not know for certain if he is alive or dead.

"I haven't heard from him in weeks.Our lawyers told us he was supposed to have some kind of medical treatment, an operation, but since then, nothing," said Ziad Aziz, his eldest son. "We don't know what kind of operation he was having and I don't know what happened to him. He might be dead, he might be alive. Of course, we are worried about him. "We used to speak to him every Wednesday for 10 minutes or so, but there has not been a sound for four weeks."

Tariq Aziz, now 73 years old, was one of the most wanted figures in the country when the US invaded. He surrendered to American troops in Baghdad on April 24, 2003 and has been in detention ever since, held in Camp Cropper. The International Committee for the Red Cross has been allowed intermittent access to him and others at the prison. An independent source with access to information about US detainees in Camp Cropper told The National, on condition of anonymity, that Tariq Aziz was alive "but in rather poor health, with four or five different problems".

In March, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity by the special Iraqi tribunal set up to prosecute former regime members and was sentenced to 15 years in jail over the execution of 42 merchants, killed more than a decade earlier in a price fixing scandal. He was previously cleared of involvement in the violent suppression of a domestic uprising, which had raised hopes among his family of a total acquittal on all charges against him. They insist he is not guilty of any wrongdoing.

"My father is innocent," said Ziad Aziz, 43, in an interview in Amman, Jordan. "If someone says he is a criminal there must be direct evidence of his criminal act and there has been none against my father. He was convicted under collective responsibility as a member of the government, which is absurd because there was only one person in Iraq giving orders, the president, Saddam Hussein." The special tribunal, which sentenced Saddam to death in 2006, has been heavily criticised by international human rights groups. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the verdict against Saddam was unsound because of "serious administrative, procedural and substantial legal defects".

The dramatic turnaround in Aziz's fortunes mirrors that of the Baathist regime he had loyally served since joining the ruling Revolution Command Council in 1977. In 1984, he met then US president Ronald Reagan and secured US backing for the disastrous eight-year war with Iran. Six years and one US president later, he was no longer an American ally. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, something the Iraqi deputy prime minister justified on the grounds of competition over oil resources.

Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Aziz notoriously refused to accept a letter from the US president, George Bush, to Saddam at a meeting in Geneva, designed as a last-ditch effort to avert the conflict. A decade of crippling economic sanctions followed that war, during which Aziz survived the various purges and fallings in and out of favour that characterised Saddam's brutal rule. Ahead of the US-led invasion of 2003, Tariq Aziz publicly said he would rather die than fall into American hands. In the event, he willingly turned himself over, apparently convinced he would be released and allowed to live abroad after a short period of detention and questioning.

"I remember he said, 'Let me go and if there is such a thing as justice, no one will be able to find anything against me'," said his son Ziad. "But I am sure the Americans, the British, the Iraqi government all want him to die in prison. The West doesn't like him because he knows too much about their dealings with Saddam Hussein over the years and they don't want that to be made public. The Iraqis want him dead because he is a Christian and they are Shiites."

While the televised trial of Saddam and some of his main lieutenants, including his half brothers and Ali Hassan al Majid - better known as Chemical Ali for his role in poison gas attacks in northern Iraq - commanded much public attention, there was comparatively little interest in the country over the fate of Aziz. Once the very public face of Saddam's regime, his conviction raised scarcely a murmur.

During Saddam's trial, Aziz testified in support of the former Iraqi leader, saying he "is my colleague and comrade for decades". He accused the ruling Dawa Party of the current Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, of terrorist attacks against the old regime. His own trial was marked by a less defiant attitude - he slept through much of the prosecution witness testimony. "He wasn't sad, mainly he was tired of it all," said Ziad. "He's an old man, he has been in prison already for six years and he knows he's innocent."

Despite demanding his father's immediate release, Ziad, who was imprisoned under Saddam on corruption charges, said he was grateful his father remained in US custody and had not been handed over to the Iraqi authorities. "The Americans at least have laws and, love him or hate him, they will treat him properly under the law. It is better that he is with the Americans. But I know his health is bad and I doubt he will survive another year if he needed an operation."

The last time Aziz had a family visit was in May 2006, when his wife and daughter, Zynab, saw him in prison. Ziad, who maintains that Saddam, in spite of "making mistakes", is the best leader for Iraq, has been in Amman since fleeing there in 2003. He is adamant that he would himself be immediately arrested if he returned. "Whatever you think of my father, he served his country and did his duty," he said.

"I know him as a man of honour, as a diplomatic man, and a good father. The truth now is that I will never see him again." psands@thenational.ae