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Former Saddam aide Tariq Aziz testifies
Updated: 2005-06-22 08:27

Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister under Saddam Hussein, was questioned Tuesday about his alleged role in mass killings prior to the regime's ouster, his lawyer said.

The four-hour questioning session by a special war crimes tribunal focused on the 1987-88 Anfal campaign, a depopulation scheme in which hundreds of thousands of Kurds were killed or expelled from northern Iraq on Saddam's orders, said Badee Izzat Aref, Aziz's lawyer.

Aziz has been jailed since he surrendered in April 2003.

Tariq Aziz
Former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz sits in a court room in this Thursday, July 1, 2004 file photo at Camp Victory, on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq. Aziz was questioned Tuesday, June 21, 2005 about his alleged role in mass killings prior to the regime's ouster, his lawyer said.[AP/file]
"He denied all the charges and he was very calm and told them that there was no evidence for these accusations," Aref said. The lawyer's comments broke a gag order he had signed earlier with the Iraqi Special Tribunal, but he called the order an "illegal request" and said he planned to challenge it.

Aziz, 69, referred to Saddam as "president" and "leader Saddam Hussein" during his testimony, Aref said, adding that the panel also called in Saddam's former vice president, Taha Yasin Ramadan, moments before Aziz entered. Ramadan refused to answer questions because his lawyer was not present, Aref said.

The pretrial hearing took place at a U.S. military detention complex near Baghdad airport where Aziz is in U.S. custody, Aref said. He said he spoke with his client over tea beforehand and brought him cigarettes. "For the first time, U.S. troops gave Aziz permission to take them," he said.

Aziz, the only Christian in the top Baath Party leadership, was allegedly involved in several party purges in the 1970s and 80s during which an unspecified number of people died.

He is at least the fourth person, including Saddam himself, to provide testimony in recent weeks to the Iraqi Special Tribunal investigating war crimes during the former dictator's regime.

The tribunal has released a total of three videotapes showing the ousted dictator and two others giving testimony and signing statements before the panel. All the videos lacked audio.

In Belgium, Iraq's Justice Minister Abdel Hussein Shandal accused the United States of trying to delay Iraqi efforts to interrogate Saddam, saying "it seems there are lots of secrets they want to hide."

But he said he was confident investigators would wrap up the case against Saddam by the end of the year, underlining the Iraqi government's determination to try the ousted leader soon.

The Americans privately have urged caution about rushing into a trial, saying Iraq must develop a good court and judicial system — one of the main topics of discussion at an Iraq conference being held in Brussels, Belgium.

U.S. officials say Iraqis will decide on Saddam's trial, but there are concerns that a trial now could interfere with the key process of writing a constitution and inflame sectarian tension. The Iraqi government must finish a draft by mid-August so they can hold a referendum on the charter ahead of December elections for a full-term government.

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