BAGHDAD (AP) — From self-exile in Turkey, Iraq's fugitive vice president scoffed Monday at a Baghdad court that sentenced him to the gallows for masterminding death squads against rivals, describing it as a puppet of the prime minister and saying he will not return to appeal the verdict.
The conviction of Tariq al-Hashemi, one of the nation's highest-ranking Sunni officials, rids Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of a top political foe while threatening to deepen the rift between Iraq's main Muslim sects as the nation struggles to achieve stability nine months after U.S. troops withdrew.
Hours after the verdict was announced on Sunday, insurgents launched fierce bombings against mostly Shiite neighborhoods in the capital, killing 92 and wounding over 360 in one of Iraq's deadliest days this year. In a statement posted on a militant website Monday, Iraq's wing of al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the countrywide attacks and promised "black days ahead." Later in the day, a car bomb exploded outside a restaurant in southwest Baghdad, killing eight people and wounding 32, security and health officials said.
Appearing alternately affable and defiant at a packed press conference in Turkey's capital, al-Hashemi maintained his innocence after being found guilty of organizing the murders of a lawyer and a Shiite security officer.
"The verdict is unjust, politicized, illegitimate and I will not recognize it. It means nothing to me," al-Hashemi, who took office in 2006, told reporters in Ankara. "But I put it as a medal of honor on my chest because it was al-Maliki, not anyone else, behind it. For me, this proof that I'm innocent."
"The death sentence is a price I have to pay due to my love to my country and due to my loyalty to my people," he added. "I'm ready to stand before a fair judicial system and not a corrupt and paralyzed one that is under al-Maliki's will and oppression."
Spokesmen for al-Maliki and the Shiite-led government could not immediately be reached for comment Monday despite repeated attempts, but in the past have denied that the prime minister influenced the trial.
The charges against al-Hashemi and his son-in-law, Ahmed Qahtan, were announced the day after U.S. troops left Iraq last December as part of new allegations they played a role in an estimated 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks during the height of sectarian violence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Prosecutors said the attacks were carried out mostly by al-Hashemi's bodyguards and other employees, and largely targeted government officials, security forces and Shiite pilgrims. The Baghdad court sentenced both al-Hashemi and Qahtan in absentia to death. They have 30 days to appeal the verdict and could win a retrial if they return to Iraq to face the charges.
Al-Hashemi says his bodyguards were tortured into giving false statements and refuses to return if the retrial is held in Baghdad, accusing al-Maliki of controlling the judicial system. "I'm not going regardless of the time scale that has been offered to me," he said.