Tariq Aziz, one of the closest advisers to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in the execution of 42 merchants.

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Former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz stands in an Iraqi court in April 2008. ((Associated Press))

Two of Hussein's half-brothers, Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan and Sabaawi Ibrahim al-Hassan, were sentenced to be hanged for their roles in the killings.

The Iraqi High Tribunal, the country's top court, handed down the sentences Wednesday.

"The court has ruled that Watban Ibrahim al-Hassan ... and Sabaawi Ibrahim al-Hassan be hanged until death for committing a premeditated killing ... a crime against humanity," Judge Raouf Abdul Rahman said.

Aziz, once Hussein's deputy prime minister, had denied any involvement in the deaths of the flour traders. He could have been given the death penalty.

Aziz, the only Christian in Saddam's mostly Sunni Muslim regime, became internationally known as Saddam's defender in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the 1991 Gulf War and in the run-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the regime.

Another top Hussein aide, Ali Hassan al-Majid, was also sentenced to 15 years for his role in the killings. Media reports say two other former top Iraqi officials received sentences of six and 15 years in prison, respectively.

The BBC also reported that a former governor of the Iraqi central bank was acquitted in the case.

Aziz acquitted in earlier case

The charges against Aziz stemmed from the 1992 executions of 42 merchants accused by the government of profiteering while the country was under strict UN sanctions.

Aziz was acquitted earlier this month of playing a role in the killings of Shia Muslims in 1999. Al-Majid, commonly known as "Chemical Ali," received a third death sentence in that case.

Al-Majid received his first death sentence in 2007 for ordering the deaths of thousands of Kurds in 1988. He received a second death sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity over his role in a violent crackdown on a Shia uprising in 1991.

The Iraqi High Tribunal was created in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The tribunal has come under fire from Sunni Arabs and international rights groups like the Human Rights Watch for an alleged judicial bias against those associated with Hussein.

The Human Rights Watch has said the tribunal's trial of Hussein — who was hanged in December 2006 — was flawed due to a number of legal and procedural defects.

With files from the Associated Press