The Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, said today he would never sign former deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz's execution order, saying it was time to turn the page on the country's history of capital punishment.
"No, I will not sign this kind of order because I am a socialist," Mr Talabani told France 24 television during an interview. "I feel for Tareq Aziz, because he's an Iraqi Christian, and he's also an elderly person over 70 years old. That's why I will never sign this execution order."
Aziz was given the death penalty on October 26 for a crackdown on Shiite religious parties in the 1980s, and is also on trial for a crackdown on Iraqi Kurds, of which Mr Talabani is one.
Iraq's supreme criminal court found the long-time international face of the Saddam Hussein regime guilty of "deliberate murder and crimes against humanity," sentencing him to death.
The verdict provoked a wave of appeals for clemency from around the world, including from rights groups, the European Union, Russia and the Vatican.
Aged 74, in poor health and among Saddam's few surviving top cohorts, Aziz has been in prison since surrendering in April 2003, a month after the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The court also sentenced Aziz to 15 years imprisonment for "committing torture" and 10 years for "participating in torture," and ordered that all of his known wealth be confiscated.
Two other men received the death sentence at the same time as Aziz – former interior minister Saadoun Shaker and Abid Hmoud, an aide to Saddam.
All three were sentenced for their role in the crackdown on Shiites, but the urbane Aziz was by far the most prominent figure.
Named foreign minister in 1983 and then deputy prime minister in 1991, Aziz exploited his mastery of English to put a gloss on Saddam's murderous regime for two decades.
Mr Talabani has previously said that he is generally against capital punishment, and declined to confirm some court execution orders but without preventing the hangings going ahead.
Aziz was the latest member of Saddam's fallen regime to be ordered to die, but Mr Talabani said it was time to turn the page on the punishment, barring for some sectarian crimes.
"I think that the page of executions needs to be turned, except concerning the crimes committed at the cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and crimes against Shiite pilgrims and holy sites," he said.
At least 46 hostages, including two priests, were killed during a hostage drama with al Qa'eda gunmen in Baghdad's Sayidat al Nejat Syriac Catholic cathedral during Sunday mass at the end of last month.
The Greek president, Carolos Papoulias, called in October on Talabani to intervene to prevent the execution going ahead. "Such a gesture would be greatly appreciated by Iraq's friends in the European Union and internationally, and highlight the difference between the country's democratic present and its past," Mr Papoulias said. Under Iraqi law, death sentences must be carried out within 30 days of being confirmed by the highest court in the land.