BAGHDAD (AP) — A Baghdad court on Wednesday sentenced 24 suspected members of the Islamic State terror group to death for their role in the killing of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers during the extremists' blitz across the country last year.
The case stems from the horrific killings of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers at the hands of the Islamic State militants who captured the troops after IS overran Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in June 2014.
At the time, the soldiers were trying to flee from Camp Speicher, a nearby army base.
After Tikrit was captured, IS posted graphic images and video that showed its gunmen massacring scores of the soldiers after loading the captives onto flatbed trucks and then forcing them to lay face-down in a shallow ditch.
Iraqi forces, assisted by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition, retook Tikrit in April, and arrested dozens of suspects linked to the massacre. Forensic teams exhumed many of the bodies from mass graves believed to contain some of the hundreds of soldiers killed by Islamic State militants.
The 24 defendants sentenced Wednesday to death by hanging were charged with the killings and membership in a terror group. All pleaded not guilty, insisting that they never took part in the massacre. They told the court that their confessions were coerced under torture by Iraqi officers.
The trial in Baghdad was attended by families of the slain troops — many of whom had filed claims against the defendants.
Some of the families told the judge that a day after the fall of Tikrit, they received calls from their relatives in Speicher, telling them that some Sunnis tribal chiefs had arrived at the gate of the air base and told the soldiers that they can go home safely by lorries waiting for them outside the base. Hours later, all contact was lost with the soldiers.
At one point in the trial, while the chief judge was questioning the defendants, several relatives of the slain soldiers stormed the courtroom and started throwing shoes and water bottles at the defendants, who were inside a defendants' cage, which is customary in many Arab courtrooms. The judge who issued the 24 death sentences also acquitted four other defendants for lack of evidence.
After the sentencing, the victims' relatives raised up pictures of their loved ones. Some burst into tears and others chanted "Allahu Akbar," which means "God is Great" in Arabic, and "Oh, Hussein," a reference to a revered Shiite saint and the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.
Ali Abdul-Hamza, whose brother was among the victims, said "Justice is done" as he was leaving the courtroom.
"We are relieved to see these criminals receiving the maximum punishment," he told The Associated Press.
Ahead of the trial, the spokesman for Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council, Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, promised that "the trial will be transparent and fair."
He added that some 604 other militants, believed to have taken part in the killing, were still at large.
Also Wednesday, a bomb went off in an industrial area in the town of Taji, 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Baghdad, killing two people and wounding five others, police officials said. Also, a bomb blast a commercial street in western Baghdad killed two people and wounded eight.
Medical officials confirmed the death toll. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.