Human Rights Watch on Friday called for Iraq to launch a criminal investigation into allegations that a bodyguard of the country's fugitive Sunni vice president who died in custody was tortured.
Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi died earlier this month in prison, and Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi released photographs which his office said showed the 33-year-old was tortured, though security forces and judicial authorities insist he died of kidney failure.
"The statements we heard and photos we saw indicate that Iraqi security officers may have tortured Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi to death while he was in their custody," the New York-based rights group's deputy Middle East Director Joe Stork said in a statement.
"It's essential for the Iraqi government to investigate his death and report publicly what they find."
A senior Iraqi general and a judicial spokesman have said Batawi died of kidney failure and other conditions after refusing treatment.
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"He died because he had a serious disease in his kidney, and he refused to be tested and to be treated," Lieutenant General Hassan al-Baydhani, chief of staff of Baghdad's security command centre, told AFP on Thursday.
Asked about Hashemi's claims to have photographic evidence that Batawi was tortured, Baydhani replied: "It is easy for Photoshop to show anything," referring to the digital picture editing software.
Higher Judicial Council spokesman Abdelsattar Birakdar added Batawi was regularly examined by doctors at multiple Baghdad hospitals and in prison, and that he died of kidney failure, diarrhoea and reduced blood pressure.
Hashemi released a statement on Wednesday in which he said Batawi had died and his body was handed over to his family on March 18, around three months after his initial arrest.
"There were signs of torture in several parts of his body, including several sensitive places, a cause of savage methods used on him during the investigation," the statement said.
In December, shortly after US troops completed their withdrawal from Iraq, the country's Shiite-led authorities issued an arrest warrant for Hashemi, a Sunni, on terror charges, sparking a protracted political crisis.
Hashemi, who has been in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region for the duration of the row, says the allegations are politically motivated, and Kurdish officials have refused to hand him over to the central government.