BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's fugitive Sunni vice president demanded Sunday that global human rights groups investigate whether one of his bodyguards was tortured to death.
Taking the unusual step of speaking in English in a speech aimed at the international community, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi accused Iraq's government of covering up the imprisonment and slaying of bodyguard Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi.
Iraq's government says al-Batawi, 33, died of kidney failure while he was detained in the probe launched last December into whether al-Hashemi directed death squads against Shiite pilgrims, government officials and security officials.
Al-Hashemi said witnesses confirmed that al-Batawi had bleeding from his mouth and from other bodily orifices. He said the bodyguard had other wounds across his body "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."
The government's conduct of the investigation against the country's highest-ranked Sunni politician 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. Al-Hashemi has avoided arrest by fleeing to the country's semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
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.
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's timed his speech to be delivered as dignitaries, journalists and political observers from across the world began arriving in Baghdad for the annual Arab League summit that will be held in the Iraqi capital this week. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby flew into Baghdad on Sunday and was holding meetings with Iraq's top leaders, including Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
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.
The vice president has denied the terrorism charges against him that he calls politically motivated. From his refuge in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, he has called for his trial to be moved from Baghdad to the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk where he believes his case will get an impartial review. Kirkuk is 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
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. Additionally, 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.
Earlier this week, 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.
Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this story. Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larajakesAP