BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi court sentenced 24 people to death on Wednesday over the killings of hundreds of mainly Shi‘ite soldiers captured by Islamic State militants during their offensive through northern Iraq last year.
As many as 1,700 soldiers were killed after they fled Camp Speicher, a former U.S. military base just north of Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, and were rounded up by the Sunni Islamist fighters.
Video footage of the soldiers being gunned down in their hundreds, posted online by jihadists, came to symbolize Islamic State brutality and could mark the deadliest single act of violence during a decade of intermittent sectarian war in Iraq.
Dispensing swift justice, the court issued the death sentences within hours of the start of the trial on Wednesday, based on what a spokesman described as strong evidence and confessions from the convicted men.
“Today the Iraqi central criminal court issued a death sentence against 24 people convicted of the Speicher massacre,” said Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar, spokesman for Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council.
He said all those tried and sentenced on Wednesday were Iraqi nationals. Another 604 suspects wanted in connection with the killings remained at large, he added.
Tariq Harib, a leading Iraqi criminal lawyer who attended the session, said the sentences would be sent automatically to a higher court within a month for approval.
Iraqi soldiers and Shi‘ite militia fighters recaptured Tikrit from Islamic State militants three months ago, allowing the start of exhumations at 12 suspected mass graves thought to contain the bodies of the slain soldiers.
Video footage released a year ago showed bodies being dumped in the nearby Tigris river, suggesting that a definite death toll from the Speicher killings may never emerge.
Many families of victims accused military leaders and local Sunni tribespeople of not doing more to prevent the killings, saying senior officers told the men they could safely abandon Camp Speicher and head for their homes in Iraq’s Shi‘ite south.
Instead they were rounded up and led to their deaths.
Government officials disputed those accounts, saying there was no promise of safety, and that the soldiers had left the base unarmed despite being ordered to stay.
Reporting by Baghdad newsroom; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Andrew Roche