In a test of Iraq’s judicial sovereignty, an Iraqi court sentenced a British contractor who killed two co-workers to life in prison but spared him the death penalty.
It was the first case of a Westerner being tried in an Iraqi court since this nation regained sovereignty from the United States. In what appeared to be another first in Iraq, the court agreed that Danny Fitzsimons had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In August 2009, hours after he arrived in the country to work for the ArmorGroup security firm, the former British paratrooper had downed a bottle of whisky, shot dead a British and an Australian co-worker, and wounded an Iraqi guard.
He admitted to the shootings but said he had acted in self-defense. A guilty verdict would normally have resulted in the death sentence. Under Iraqi law, life in prison is 15 years. Mr. Fitzsimons has already served 1-1/2 years of those while waiting for trial.
The sentence provides for an automatic appeal, which could further reduce it.
Fitzsimons, wearing a black suit and a tie, was led in handcuffs to the courtroom. His Iraqi lawyer, Tariq Harb, says he was relieved at the sentence.
“If he were sentenced in Britain or the United States he would have received at least 60 years,” says Mr. Harb. He says both the British medical report and one done by an Iraqi medical committee concluded that the horrors of the war in Kosovo and attacks while he was serving in Iraq had left him deeply troubled.
“This illness makes the one who has it feel like everyone else is his enemy and the smallest provocation, even if it’s simple, will have dangerous consequences – so the court took into account the nature of the illness,” says his lawyer.
Harb says heavy drinking contributed to Fitzsimons's problems.
"When you read the last reports of his military service they say that he was the best soldier on duty, but off-duty, when he drinks a full bottle, he changes.”
Fitzsimons had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was facing trial for assault in Britain when he was hired by the security company, which has come under criticism for inadequate screening. Private security contractors were given immunity from prosecution in Iraq until 2009, under the terms of a new security agreement with the United States.
The British contractor’s case dragged on for a year and a half. But had it been settled sooner, Harb says, public anger would have likely ensured that the punishment would have been much more severe.
“A year ago a very strong public opinion was against the security companies, that’s why delaying the case and keeping it going on for over a year was in our favor,” he says.
The US firm Blackwater became a hated symbol of the US occupation after its guards shot 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded dozens of others after it believed one of its armored convoys was threatened in Baghdad’s Nsoor Square in 2007. The firm, which has since changed its name to Xe, was banned in Iraq along with all of its former employees.