Ex-soldier awaits Iraq murder verdict

Danny Fitzsimons is an ex-soldier who was hired to work in Baghdad. Soon after he arrived, two of his colleagues were dead, and he was charged with their murder. Today the verdict will be delivered – and he will find out if he is to face execution

Exclusive Interview,Terri Judd
Monday 28 February 2011 01:00

His left leg shaking incessantly, his eyes wild, Danny Fitzsimons embarks on an uninterruptible diatribe – rapid-fire descriptions of alleged events in his life. Every story is one of extreme violence and is recounted in boastful, graphic terms. Some of what he says is patently total fabrication, some of it appears genuine. It is impossible to tell where fantasy meets reality.

Fitzsimons – diminutive, shaven-headed, wearing tracksuit bottoms and flip flops – is in his prison in Baghdad and momentarily master of his environment – all 10ft square of it.

Behind him, an Iraqi soap opera is playing on a small television in the guard's office next to his cell as Fitzsimons's father and brother sit perched on the edge of a bed, their faces pictures of pain and confusion.

In his hand Eric Fitzsimons, 62, clutches a bag of sweets, a pair of novelty socks, and a ukulele – presents he has brought for his son on his first opportunity to see him for almost two years.

Danny Fitzsimons, 30, is charged with murdering two fellow ArmorGroup employees – former Royal Marine Paul McGuigan and Australian Darren Hoare, both 37 – as well as attempting to murder an Iraqi, Arkhan Mahdi, and today he will hear the verdict in the case and, if he is found guilty, whether he is to face execution.

Beneath the strip lighting of the guard's room next to his cell, Fitzsimons alternates between bravado and quieter moments. Having just emerged from another day in court, he says nonchalantly: "I was fine, very relaxed. It is just another day in court. I just keep myself moving forward, go with the flow. I have been in and out of court all my life.

"Every time I have been to court I have been treated like a dog. They think I am evil. But after giving my evidence they sat me in a big VIP bit. It is different now."

It was back in August 2009 that Fitzsimons flew into Baghdad to begin a job as a security contractor with ArmorGroup, owned by G4S, despite being repeatedly diagnosed with mental health problems including post-traumatic stress, facing trial for assault and having been sacked by two other security firms.

Within 36 hours, he had been arrested – accused of murdering the two westerners in what has been described as "a whisky-fuelled brawl" and wounding the Iraqi guard, who was shot in the legs. All charges he denies, though he has asked the three-judge panel to consider a plea of manslaughter.

What happened that night remains a matter of angry debate. Fitzsimons claims he was acting in self-defence, a statement strenuously denied by the relatives of the men who lost their lives.

What is not open for debate is that the case is an inflammatory one – the first westerner to go on trial since the start of the war in Iraq. It happened just months after security firms – who had poured into the country in the post-conflict confusion – lost immunity. For the Iraqis, it was an opportunity to clamp down on the guards, despised by many particularly since a group of American contractors from Blackwater opened fire on civilians in 2007, killing 14 and wounding 20.

G4S, a company with a £7bn turnover in 2009 and competing for multi-million dollar contracts in Iraq, swiftly sacked Fitzsimons but insisted it was observing its duty of care by providing him with meals and contributing towards his legal costs.

The Fitzsimons family, who are from Manchester, did not even know Danny had flown out to Baghdad, and the matter has been a desperate fight to try to get him brought back to face justice in Britain. They remain adamant that he had such severe mental health problems that he should never have been employed by ArmorGroup.

But the family's campaign to see him brought back to the UK has been met with a brick wall from the British Government. Eric Fitzsimons's requests to see his son in Baghdad were refused by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which insisted the situation in the Iraqi capital was too dangerous, and G4S said it feared offending the families of the dead men. The multi-billion pound giant eventually capitulated and agreed to contribute £9,000 towards the trip.

It fell to a more specialist security company operating in Baghdad – the Pilgrims Group – to take them under their wing and help them negotiate a city that, while it is considerably safer than at the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006 and 2007, remains a place of regular bombings and gunfire.

"In my opinion, if you are happy to reap the financial rewards off the backs of personnel operating in high risk locations you should be ready to stand the responsibility of sorting things out when they go wrong," says Pilgrims Group's managing director, William Freear. "Although we are not as large as some of the big PSCs, we have always operated in an ethical manner and have always been able to sleep at night."

Mr Freear says he stepped in to help after being "shocked and disappointed" to hear that the Government was unwilling to assist and Fitzsimons's former employers would only provide limited funding: "I am happy we had the capability to help this family and while I think Mr Fitzsimons should be punished according to his crime I do not think his family should be abandoned by his employers or the British government.

"PSCs operating in Iraq and other high-risk locations have not impressed very often when it comes to their behaviour and general attitude. I cannot comment on the behaviour of Danny Fitzsimons and certainly grieve for the families of the people he killed but my heart also goes out to his family too. They are completely innocent in all this."

G4S said it had provided a "significant contribution" to Fitzsimons's legal expenses. A spokesman said the company's main reason for refusing any more help for the family was because it would distress the relatives of the dead men. He added: "We know there is still a high level of emotion over the case from our employees in Iraq and, as such, do not believe we should impose further on the high levels of integrity they have shown in providing such dedicated and professional duty of care to Mr Fitzsimons over such a long period."

Eric Fitzsimons and Danny's brother Michael – both schoolteachers – travelled to Baghdad last week for a strained but poignant reunion at the Karadt Mariam police station within the International Zone where Fitzsimons has been held for 18 months as his trial was repeatedly adjourned.

For a few moments when the family is first reunited, the prisoner simply stares back at his father, his face emotionless. He turns to look at his brother, patently overwhelmed at seeing them for the first time since he was incarcerated, before murmuring the words "All right, bro" and enveloping both men in vice-like hugs.

Just minutes earlier, Danny Fitzsimons had been in the cell he has had to share with up to 20 other inmates. Within it he has created his own little enclosure, a group of cardboard boxes surrounding a mattress. There is also a television – brought in by Iraqi police officers showing kindness to the strange English inmate who has become their long-term occupant.

On the wall, a smart suit for court is an incongruous sight in the Spartan, paint-chipped cell and an ominous reminder of the severity of his situation, the death penalty hanging over him. As he worked out on the concrete floor, the police guard walked in and told him to shower – he was about to see his family for the first time in nearly two years. Fitzsimons did not believe him.

After his initial stunned pause, the former soldier, who lives his days on valium when he can get it, veers from maniacal ranting to gentle affectionate conversations during a three-hour meeting with his father and brother.

One minute he is talking about "blades" and "claret all over the place", the next he is teasing his younger brother, 27, about how he used to sleep-walk as a child, or joking with his father about his George Best hairstyle during his professional footballing days.

At times, he appears to express regret for the shootings, at others he goes into long tirades justifying his actions. Sometimes his version seems logical and lucid, at others simply fantasy created over months with little more to do than reflect on the horror of the night in question.

"I might look like I am handling it well but underneath I am suffering from constant anxiety. I have recurring dreams of things that have happened and things that I have done. Men screaming and burning. People I have been unable to save or help people only feet away.".

A document dating as far back as 2002 detailed how Fitzsimons had been "delighted and proud" to join the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, but remained haunted by what he had seen previously while serving with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, in Kosovo. He talked of the memories of decomposing bodies and in particular the severed remains of an 11-year-old boy he had found in a fridge. It said he was suffering from hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, anxiety and constant fear of attack.

Upon discharge from the Army in 2004, however, Fitzsimons took up security work in Iraq during which he witnessed a friend being blown apart by a roadside bomb. Back at home, he was increasingly in trouble with the police and was often suicidal. Psychiatrists confirmed that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He covered every inch of his flat with scrawlings about death.

Fitzsimons says in his prison: "I don't sleep well at all. I get nightmares. It is a bit shit, depressing. I am worried all the time. I have good days and bad days. I used to be on anti-psychotic medicine but it ran out. Now I take Valium. I am a better person when I am on Valium. I have it all day."

He barks orders to legal caseworker John Tipple, his temper flaring when contradicted. Beneath his hard-man image, he appears most terrified of a long spell in one of Iraq's infamous jails, Rusafa, a prison described in a BBC report two years ago as overcrowded with inmates in pitiful conditions.

"I am just worried about custody. Rusafa is run by my enemies. Of course, I am nervous," he concedes.

But with little warning, he softens, and begins reminiscing about his childhood with his father and brother, teasing each other with family jokes that have stood the test of time and the chasm that now exists between them.

"I am just overwhelmed," says Fitzsimons. "This is how I imagined it would be if – when – I came back to Britain. It has made my 18 months seeing them both. I don't like showing emotion. I have only cried once, recently when I spoke on the phone to my dad for the first time.

"He looks fine, the way he has always looked though his hair is a bit greyer. He looks like my boyhood hero, a professional rugby player and football player. I have been thinking for a long time: 'What if I don't see him again?' My brother is a diamond. I hate teachers but I like him."

He says he has been occupying himself in the cell by writing his memoirs: "Iraq was my dream job. I came out here for the buzz and because I was miserable in the UK. But I miss everything about Britain. I miss the rotten weather. I miss my friends. My dream is to be put in a British jail. I dream of home every day. I think about Blighty. It has been a lonely 18 months but you get used to it. The isolation is something I have got used to. Even when the cell has been full; I have never felt so alone surrounded by 20 people."

After Fitzsimons's case was adjourned last Sunday by judges who asked for further clarification on psychiatric reports, he said: "Obviously I hope to be acquitted for self-defence but even manslaughter would be a result. I do remain hopeful but it is 50/50."

The judgement comes at a difficult time, with the Iraqis contemplating how much western presence they will be willing to allow after the withdrawal of all American troops by the end of this year. That is forecast to mean a rise in security contractors protecting US State Department employees. Only last week, the Iraqi Government demanded $1bn from America, claiming that the military presence had destroyed its capital with armoured vehicles and blast barriers.

Today Danny Fitzsimons's family is meeting with Britain's Middle East minister, Alistair Burt, to implore him to try to arrange a prisoner transfer back to Britain.

"The trip has been emotional but really worthwhile," says Eric Fitzsimons. "Coming out here has only reinforced how severely mentally ill Danny is and how much he desperately needs to come back to Britain for psychiatric treatment. I accept and recognise what he is like but I will never give up on my son."

As his family pleads his case in the UK, Fitzsimons will be back at Karkh criminal court in west Baghdad, when all concerned hope the verdict will finally be given. His fate may rest on whether the Iraqis want to rid themselves of the former security contractor or make an example of him.

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