Middle East

Hashemi trial: Murder plots detailed in Iraqi court

Iraq's fugitive Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, in Istanbul, 4 May
Image caption Tariq Hashemi has fled the country

The trial in absentia of Iraq's fugitive Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, has heard gripping testimony from a man said to have arranged a revenge bomb attack on his behalf.

Wearing sandals and a brown jumpsuit, Hameed Mashhadani approached the bench and faced the judge.

Only muffled sobs were audible as he placed his hand on the Koran. "Swear to tell the truth," the judge instructed him.

For a few seconds the courtroom was silent, until Mr Mashhadani finally let out the oath in a whimper. Then he confessed.

Some time last year, he said, he was ordered to arrange an attack on a police checkpoint which had stopped and searched Mr Hashemi's convoy and questioned his bodyguards.

Mr Mashhadani had several men assigned to work with him, and he set out distributing tasks. Abu Kaisar would buy the car and fetch the suicide bomber. Abu Ruqayya would prepare the explosives and rig the vehicle at Abu Ali's ranch.

The next day, the suicide bomber rammed a dark blue Kia into the checkpoint. "I don't know how many people died," Mr Mashhadani told the court.

Was the suicide bomber Iraqi? the judge asked. "He looked Iraqi, but I couldn't tell for sure," came the reply. We weren't allowed to speak to them."

He said he had received US $10,000 to cover the expenses of the attack.

The judge asked him how they managed to smuggle explosives through checkpoints during this and other attacks.

"When the bomb detector pointed to the car, we'd just say that we were carrying perfume," he replied.

'Protector of the Sunnis'

Throughout the session, Mr Mashhadani's voice was subdued, and he would often answer the judge with a nod and a few mumbled words. The judge would then articulate the answer to the rest of the courtroom.

"I've lost respect for Hashemi," he said. Echoing a previous witness, he told the court that Mr Hashemi spoke of lofty principles in public but was a different person away from the cameras.

Earlier, Riyad al-Qobeissi had told the court Mr Hashemi had "cast himself as protector of the Sunnis in Iraq but, in reality, he would order the killing of Sunnis who opposed him".

Unlike Mr Mashhadani, Mr Qobeissi was calm and articulate. He said he had joined Mr Hashemi's team of bodyguards in 2005, when Mr Hashemi was still the leader of the Islamic Party of Iraq.

When he became vice-president in 2006, Mr Qobeissi was appointed deputy head of security.

Among other attacks, he helped organise and carry out the assassination of the son of a Sunni Sheikh who "wasn't on message".

His killing was meant to chase his father away from the Al-Shawaf mosque so it could be used by the Islamic party for recruitment.

Mr Qobeissi said that he was once given a list of men to kill under the pretext of "restoring balance to government institutions".

They were Shia judges working in Sunni areas, he explained.

At the beginning of the session, the judge rejected a request by the defence to call Iraqi President Jalal Talabani as a witness.

In response, the defence decided not to participate in the session, but remained in the courtroom to take notes.

Mr Hashemi and his son-in-law are formally charged with ordering the murder of a lawyer, an employee in the ministry of state for national security and a police officer.

Mr Mashhadani and Mr Qobeissi both deny any knowledge of any of the three cases.

Questions about Maliki

The detailed confessions have left Mr Hashemi, currently a fugitive in Turkey, mostly on the defensive.

But the vice-president and his supporters have their own list of accusations against the judiciary, the security services and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

They point to a speech by Mr Maliki in which he said he had known about Mr Hashemi's "violations" for three years but had wanted to give the political process a chance to succeed.

Mr Maliki also said in his speech in December last year that he had more information to reveal. "I hope they will at least stop the sabotage and the killing. Otherwise, all the files will be handed over to the judiciary."

Critics of Mr Maliki say the comments are evidence that the entire trial is a political affair.

The decision to air televised confessions of several of Mr Hashemi's bodyguards has also been criticised as proof that the Iraqi judiciary is unable or unwilling to protect the rights of the prisoners.

Most of all, the death of one of Mr Hashemi's bodyguards while in custody has raised suspicions.

In March Mr Hashemi accused security forces of torturing the man to death. Security forces said he had died of kidney failure.

Mr Hashemi maintains that all the confessions, on television and in court, were fabricated and extracted under torture.

The session was adjourned to 19 June.

Hours later, we headed to the Jabbar Abul Shirbet juice shop in central Baghdad to meet an intelligence officer with access to the prisoners.

"People keep asking us if the confessions are true, and whether we beat them into confessing," he said.

"I can make you confess to rigging a car by beating you up but can I get you to invent elaborate stories in such detail?"

Mr Hashemi, according to the intelligence officer, said one thing to the media and then did the opposite away from the spotlight.