BAGHDAD, (AP) – 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.”
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.
In handing down the verdict, the head judge of the three-judge panel said Fitzsimons’ mental condition was taken into consideration when deciding on the sentence.
“Danny Fitzsimons, the court has found established evidence that you killed the two slain men and attempted to kill the third,” said the judge.
“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 during Monday’s court hearing, and highlighted the independence of the Iraqi court.
“This was a decision made by the Iraqi court. We respect the independence of the Iraqi judicial system,” said an embassy spokesman who did not give his name.
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.