Image: Danny Fitzsimons
Karim Kadim  /  AP file
Danny Fitzsimons, center, is escorted out of a court in Baghdad on Feb. 20. The Iraqi court convicted the Briton of murdering two contractors in Baghdad in a first trial for a Westerner in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/28/2011 6:37:47 AM ET 2011-02-28T11:37:47

An Iraqi court on Monday convicted a British man and sentenced him to 20 years in prison in 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 contractor had faced a possible death sentence after he was arrested in August 2009 over the deaths of Briton Paul McGuigan and Australian Darren Hoare.

Fitzsimons, from Rochdale, England, admitted to shooting the men but claimed it was self-defense.

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During earlier testimony, Fitzsimons said that he and co-workers McGuigan and 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.

Saved 'from the gallows'
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.

The ruling marks the first time a Westerner has been convicted by an Iraqi court since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, said Iraq Supreme Judicial Council spokesman Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar.

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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."

The legions of security contractors who poured into Iraq after the invasion were subjected to Iraqi law at the start of 2009 after the expiration of a U.N. mandate that covered their presence. It was seen as 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.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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