Iraqi court gives Briton 20 years over slayings

AP News
Posted: Feb 28, 2011 11:10 AM
Iraqi court gives Briton 20 years over slayings

An Iraqi court on Monday convicted a British man and sentenced him to 20 years in prison over the shooting deaths of two contractors, making him the first Westerner convicted in an Iraqi court since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Danny Fitzsimons, 30, was found guilty in the 2009 fatal shootings of a British and Australian contractor who worked with him and with attempting to kill an Iraqi guard.

Fitzsimons, who had been facing the death penalty, told The Associated Press as he was being led from the courtroom by Iraqi guards that he was happy with the sentence. But when asked whether he thought the trial was fair, he said: "No."

His stepmother said she was worried he would take his life if transferred to a prison outside the protected Green Zone in the center of Baghdad where he is currently being held.

"We really are concerned that wherever he does end up he is safe," said Liz Fitzsimons told a London press conference.

Referring to the prison in eastern Baghdad where Fitzsimons would likely be transferred, she said her stepson was worried that he would be targeted by al-Qaida-linked prisoners because of his military background. "He said 'I will be a dead man if they put me in there'," she said.

The former security contractor from Rochdale, England, admitted to shooting the men but claimed it was self-defense.

During earlier testimony, Fitzsimons said that he and co-workers Paul McGuigan and Darren Hoare had been drinking whiskey when a fight broke out. In the quarrel, he said the two other men pulled guns on him and he had no choice but to shoot them with his pistol.

Covered with blood, Fitzsimons fled the scene and was running toward the British Embassy when an Iraqi guard pointed his Kalashinkov rifle at him and asked him to stop. Fitzsimons shot the guard in his left thigh.

All three foreigners and the Iraqi guard worked for a British security firm, ArmorGroup.

Fitzsimons also claimed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving with the British military in Kosovo and as a security contractor in Iraq in an earlier tour. His stepmother said he should have never been sent to Iraq because of his mental health issues and that the family did not know that he had gone to Baghdad.

In handing down the verdict, the head of the three-judge panel said Fitzsimons' mental condition was considered when deciding the sentence.

The judge said the court was presented with evidence that Fitzsimons killed the two men and tried to kill the third. "So the court issues its sentence according to ... the Iraqi criminal code and sentences you to 20 years in prison," the judge added.

Fitzsimons was accompanied by his Iraqi lawyer, Tariq Harb; his family, who attended a court session last week, were not in attendance.

"This is a very good sentence. I saved him from the gallows," Harb told reporters afterward. Fitzsimons now has 30 days to appeal, which Harb said he would do.

Officials from the British Embassy were in the audience Monday. They said they respected the independence of the Iraqi judicial system.

Last week, Fitzsimons' British lawyer, John Tripple, said the family and British authorities were trying to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to have Fitzsimons transferred to a British prison if he is not given the death penalty.

Harb said that could be possible since the "relations between the two countries are strong now and diplomacy can bear remarkable influence."

A U.S.-Iraqi security pact that took effect Jan. 1, 2009, lifted immunity for foreign contractors, an important development for Iraqis who viewed the security contractors operating in Iraq as reckless and acting with impunity.

A September 2007 shooting in Baghdad involving another security firm, the North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide, now known as Xe, left 17 Iraqi civilians dead and galvanized Iraqi authorities to push to lift the immunity.