BAGHDAD (AP) — A Baghdad court sentenced Iraq's fugitive Sunni vice president to death Sunday after finding him guilty of masterminding the killings of a lawyer and a government security official.
Tariq al-Hashemi has denied the allegations. He fled the country after Iraq's Shiite-led government leveled the terror charges against him in December.
The politically charged case sparked a crisis in Iraq's government and has fueled Sunni Muslim and Kurdish resentment against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who critics say is monopolizing power.
The Baghdad courtroom was silent Sunday as the presiding judge read out the verdict convicting al-Hashemi and his son-in-law of organizing the murders of a Shiite security official and a lawyer who had refused to help the vice president's allies in terror cases.
The court sentenced both men in absentia to death by hanging. They have 30 days to appeal the verdict.
The judge said al-Hashemi, who is in Turkey, was acquitted in a third case linked to the killing of another security officer, due to a lack of evidence.
The trial has fueled resentment among Iraq's Sunni minority, and al-Hashemi himself has dismissed the charges against him as a political vendetta pursued by his longtime rival, al-Maliki.
Sunday's final session of the trial opened a window on the politically charged nature of the case.
The defense team began its closing statement with a searing indictment of the judicial system, accusing it of losing its independence and siding with the Shiite-led government.
"From the beginning and through all procedures, it has become obvious that the Iraqi judicial system has been under political pressure," attorney Muayad Obeid al-Ezzi, the head of the defense team, told the court.
The presiding judge interjected, warning that that the court would open legal proceedings against the defense team if it continued to heap accusations on the court or the judicial system.
Iraqi political analyst Hadi Jalo said the verdict against al-Hashemi will help the embattled prime minster.
"With this verdict al-Maliki will be stronger as it will strengthen his hands," Jalo said. "The verdict, the most important since the trial of the Saddam Hussein who was hanged in 2006 with al-Maliki in office, will serve as a message to all that the government will not tolerate" misdeeds, he said.