24 suspected Islamic State militants sentenced to death for Tikrit massacre

An Iraqi court on Wednesday sentenced to death 24 suspected Islamic State members accused of taking part in the slaughter of hundreds of military recruits from a former U.S. base known as Camp Speicher last summer.

Fighters with the Sunni Muslim extremist group captured the troops when the militants overran the nearby city of Tikrit in June 2014 during their sweep across northern and western Iraq.

Islamic State later released graphic images and video showing the terrified captives, most of them Shiite Muslims, being led to shallow trenches and shot. Others were executed near the Tigris River, their bodies tossed into the water.

Islamic State claimed to have killed 1,700 soldiers -- a figure that many Iraqi officials consider credible -- in what would be its bloodiest massacre to date. Hundreds of bodies were exhumed from mass graves after the militants were driven out of Tikrit in April.

The 24 men sentenced to death by hanging denied taking part in the killings, telling the judge during a hasty trial at Baghdad’s central criminal court Wednesday that they had been tortured into confessing, according to news reports.

Four other defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence. They were among more than 600 suspects in the case, most of whom remain at large.

Family members of some of the victims attended the trial, holding pictures of their slain loved ones. Several stormed the courtroom and started throwing shoes and water bottles at the defendants, who were inside a cage, the Associated Press reported.

Some of the family members told the judge that they had received calls from their relatives on the day that Tikrit fell, telling them that Sunni tribal chiefs had arrived at Speicher’s gates to say the soldiers could safely leave and head home, AP reported.

Instead, the soldiers were rounded up and killed.

News of the massacre galvanized Shiite militias to join the fight against Islamic State last year, raising the specter of sectarian war.

The militias formed the backbone of the government’s successful campaign to retake Tikrit. Some are accused of taking part in revenge killings and looting in the Sunni-dominated hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Special correspondent Amro Hassan contributed to this report.

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3:13 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting and background.

This article was originally posted at 11:03 a.m.