BAGHDAD — Iraq's fugitive vice president demanded Sunday that global human rights groups investigate whether one of his bodyguards was tortured to death.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi accused Iraq's government of covering up the imprisonment and slaying of bodyguard Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi. Al-Hashemi himself is facing terrorism charges brought by the Baghdad government and is taking refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region.
Al-Hashemi has denied the terrorism charges against him, calling them politically motivated. The case of al-Hashemi has heightened sectarian tensions in Iraq, and many fear that with the exit of American troops in December, the country could slide into civil war.
Iraq's government says al-Batawi, 33, died of kidney failure while being questioned in the inquiry against al-Hashemi, the nation's highest ranking Sunni official. Al-Hashemi is accused of directing death squads against Shiite pilgrims, government officials and security officials.
Al-Hashemi said witnesses claimed that al-Batawi was bleeding from his mouth and from other bodily orifices. He said the bodyguard had other wounds "as a result of savage methods used on him during investigation."
"I beseech the international community to take rapid action to rectify the disastrous situation and status related to human rights," al-Hashemi said. "Our situation in Iraq has become intolerable."
In an interview Sunday, Iraqi Human Rights Minister Mohammed Shiyaa al-Sudani denied that al-Batawi was tortured and invited human rights groups to review the investigation.
"We are not afraid of that because we are a sovereign country," al-Sudani told The Associated Press.
He said the ministry's review of the case shows al-Batawi had chronic rheumatism and kidney disease and refused treatment for his conditions. He said al-Batawi "was not tortured, as there was no chance for torture," because all of the investigators were judges.
The government's conduct of the investigation has driven a deeper wedge between Iraq's Shiite leaders and minority Sunnis, who believe they are being sidelined in the country's political system.
Baghdad's military command says al-Batawi died March 15 of kidney failure, and delivered his body to his family on March 20. Pictures of al-Batawi's body, shown before al-Hashemi's speech, showed multiple bruises on his back, buttocks and legs.
Al-Hashemi said al-Batawi's death certificate did not state the cause of death, raising questions about the military's claims that he died of kidney failure. Also, al-Hashemi said his lawyers have been kept from attending hearings in the case or from taking notes in the ones they are allowed to participate in.
"All such practices are illegal," he said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch echoed al-Hashemi's concerns, agreeing the photos of al-Batawi's body show he may have been tortured.
"It's essential for the Iraqi government to investigate his death and report publicly what they find," said Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East director.
Al-Hashemi's timed his speech for the arrival in Baghdad of dignitaries, journalists and political observers for the annual Arab League summit in the Iraqi capital this week. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby flew into Baghdad on Sunday and was meeting Iraq's leaders.
Other world leaders expected to attend are United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, top officials from the European Union and African Union and at least six rulers from the 22 nations that make up the League.
Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this story. Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larajakesAP