Four members of Iraq's security forces were convicted Wednesday of robbing a Baghdad bank and killing eight guards and were sentenced to hang in a trial that could leave behind considerable political fallout.
Critics of the swift judgment in the case say the government is seeking to wrap up the trial quickly to avert political damage from links between at least one of the suspects and one of Iraq's two vice presidents.
Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi is a powerful figure in the country's largest Shiite political party, which faces a tough battle in January's national elections under an untested new leader.
Abdul-Mahdi has denied any involvement in the July robbery but said one of those charged worked as part of his security detail. He has said any suggestions of wrongdoing on his part are politically motivated attempts to sabotage his re-election efforts in the January voting.
Adding to his image problem, most of the stolen money — which totaled 5.6 billion Iraqi dinars, or $4.8 million — was later recovered in the office of a newspaper owned by Abdul-Mahdi, investigators said.
Those who died were on break or asleep
Gunmen broke into the state-run Rafidain Bank at about 4 a.m. on July 28, killing three on-duty guards and five others on the premises who were either on a break or asleep, according to police investigators.
A three-judge panel gave the four men convicted Wednesday one month to appeal.
A fifth defendant, who worked at the newspaper owned by the vice president, was acquitted because of a lack of evidence.
The head of Iraq's Bar Association was critical of what he called a hasty trial with clear political dimensions. Diaa al-Saadi, who was not involved in the proceedings, said he believed the government was seeking to wrap up the case quickly to avert political damage to the vice president.
He also said that among those still at large were two members of the presidential guards linked to Abdul-Mahdi and that they had a key role in planning and carrying out the robbery.
Political analyst Nabil Salim said the robbery will likely be a persistent source of debate in the election campaign as opponents seek to punish Abdul-Mahdi and his party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is currently part of the governing coalition.
"The heist will relatively undermine the chances of Abdul-Mahdi in the coming elections, and even if people start to forget about the incident, there will always be someone to remind them during the campaign," Salim said.
Convicted under Iraq's anti-terrorism law
Abdul-Mahdi's party is also under pressure because it could not persuade Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's own Shiite party to join it in forming a bloc to contest the election, making him into a strong rival.
The sentencing Wednesday took just two minutes, enough time for one of the judges to read the decision, then order the men to be taken from the courtroom. They were convicted of murder and robbery under Iraq's anti-terrorism law.
An Interior Ministry official said investigators found that the robbery was a criminal act and had nothing to do with financing insurgents or any other groups. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to news media.
The chief judge, who refused to be identified for personal security reasons, told The Associated Press shortly after the sentencing that the four suspects still at large would be tried in absentia. He did not set a trial date.
The trial was emotionally charged. In an earlier session, a judge briefly adjourned the hearings after relatives of those killed in the robbery beat and spat on the defendants. The relatives were banned from entering the court for Wednesday's verdict and sentencing.
Outside the courtroom, Ali Hussein Ali said he was satisfied with the sentencing of the men who killed his brother but that the feeling will not be "complete until the others who are still at large are arrested and brought to justice."
Relative demands immediate justice
Sabah Hamid, a relative of one of the other victims, demanded immediate justice and said the families want an "execution of these criminals as soon as possible."
A day earlier, Amnesty International pressed Iraq to put a halt to executions, saying many death sentences were being handed down in court proceedings that do not meet international standards for fair trials.
In Iraq's volatile northern city of Kirkuk on Wednesday, a roadside bomb hit an Iraqi army patrol, killing one soldier and wounding two, said military spokesman Col. Khalil al-Zubaie.
In Baghdad, Iraqi police rescued a 7-year-old boy who was kidnapped Tuesday — one of the many kidnappings of Iraqis, most often for ransom or political motives.