Iraq court sentences 24 to death over Tikrit massacre
An Iraqi court issued death sentences to 24 militants for their role in killing dozens of soldiers last year, while four others were acquitted for lack of evidence.
The slain soldiers were captured by the Islamic State (Isil) group when they overran Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in summer 2014. At the time, the soldiers were trying to flee from Camp Speicher, a nearby army base.
After Tikrit was captured, Isil 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.
All the defendants 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.
At one point, while the chief judge was questioning the defendants, several relatives of the slain soldiers stormed the courtroom and started to throw shoes and water bottles at the defendants, who were trapped inside a courtroom cage.
After the sentences were issued, the victims' relatives raised up pictures of their loved ones. Some burst into tears and others chanted "Allahu Akbar" and "Oh, Hussein", in reference to a revered Shiite saint and 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 said.
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.
Following the retaking of Tikrit city four months ago, dozens of people linked to the massacre were arrested by Iraqi security forces. Iraqi forensic teams immediately started exhuming bodies from mass graves believed to contain some of the hundreds of soldiers killed by Islamic State militants.