Danny Fitzsimons, centre, arrives at a Baghdad court under Iraqi police escort on February 28, 2011 [AFP]

An Iraqi court has sentenced a British man to 20 years in prison for shooting dead two contractors, making him the first Westerner convicted in an Iraqi court since the 2003 US-led invasion.

Danny Fitzsimons  was found guilty on Monday for the fatal shootings in 2009 of a British and Australian contractor who worked with him as well as attempting to kill an Iraqi guard.

Fitzsimons, who had been facing the death penalty, told the Associated Press as he was being led from the courtroom by Iraqi guards on Monday that he was happy with the sentence.

But when asked whether he thought the trial was fair, he said: "No."

The former security contractor from the town of Rochdale in the UK admitted to shooting the men but claimed it was self-defence.

The men had been out drinking and the other two tried to kill him during an altercation, Fitzsimons said during previous testimony. He also claimed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In handing down the verdict, the head judge of the three-judge panel said Fitzsimons' mental condition was taken into consideration when deciding on the sentence.

"Danny Fitzsimons, the court has found established evidence that you killed the two slain men and attempted to kill the third,'' the judge said.

"So the court issues its sentence according to ... the Iraqi criminal code and sentences you to 20 years in prison."

Fitzsimons was accompanied by Tariq Harb, his Iraqi lawyer.

'Good sentence'

"This is a very good sentence. I saved him from the gallows,'' Harb told reporters after the hearing.

Al Jazeera's Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said Fitzsimons' family was relieved he hadn't been sentenced to death.

Last week, John Tripple, Fitzsimons' British lawyer, said the family and the UK authorities were trying to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to have Fitzsimons transferred to a British prison if sentenced to jail.

Harb said that could be possible since the "relations between the two countries are strong now and diplomacy can bear remarkable influence".

A US-Iraqi security pact that took effect in early 2009, lifted immunity for foreign contractors, an important development for Iraqis who criticised some security contractors operating in Iraq as reckless and acting with impunity.

A September 2007 shooting in Baghdad involving another security firm, the North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide, now known as Xe, left at least 17 people dead. 

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies