March 21, 2012 / 8:01 PM / 8 years ago

Fugitive Iraq VP says bodyguard tortured to death

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi accused the government on Wednesday of torturing to death one of his bodyguards, an accusation that could make it more difficult to resolve a case that has split the country’s politics on dangerous sectarian fault lines.

Hashemi, Iraq’s most senior Sunni Arab politician, is sheltering in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq after the government issued an arrest warrant accusing him of running death squads.

The case, which erupted on the eve of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq last December, has jeopardized the sectarian power-sharing agreement behind Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government.

Speaking on Iraq’s Sharqia television, Hashemi said one of his bodyguards had been arrested three months ago. His body had been turned over to his family on March 18, with no cause of death listed on his death certificate.

“I announce the death of Amer Sarbut Zeidan al-Batawi... He died as a result of torture inside prison,” Hashemi said.

The Hashemi case caused a crisis in Maliki’s government, which is led by Shi’ites but also includes Kurds and Sunnis under an arrangement intended to calm the sectarian and ethnic tensions that led to extreme violence in 2006-07, when tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed.

Hashemi has refused to return to Baghdad to face justice, arguing that he cannot receive a fair trial because the courts are controlled by Maliki. He has offered to stand trial in Kirkuk, a city controlled by his fellow Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

The Kurds who control the autonomous northern region have said they will not turn Hashemi over to Baghdad for trial because the case has political implications that need to be resolved first.

Iraqi officials could not be reached for comment on Hashemi’s accusation on Wednesday evening.

Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Karolina Tagaris

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