Iraqi insists he is innocent of murder of British aid worker

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An Iraqi engineer insisted he was innocent of any role in the 2004 kidnapping and killing of British aid worker Margaret Hassan as his appeal opened before a Baghdad court on Wednesday.

Ali Lutfi Jassar was sentenced to life in prison on June 2 last year after the Baghdad Central Criminal Court convicted him of participating in one of the most high-profile murders to follow the US-led invasion of 2003.

Dublin-born Hassan, whose body has never been found, had lived in Iraq for 30 years before being taken hostage in October 2004 and shot a month later in a crime that caused international revulsion and widespread Iraqi sympathy.

The 59-year-old was head of operations in Iraq for the humanitarian group Care International for around 12 years before she was pulled from her car by men in police uniform as she was being driven to work.

Lawyers for Jassar charged that an alleged confession put before the court of first instance had been extracted under torture. Jassar himself was not in court.

The appeals court ordered an adjournment until July 15.

The lower court found Jassar guilty of "participating in the killing and kidnapping of Margaret Hassan, and of attempting to blackmail her family."

"His role in the killing was proved," judge Assaad al-Moussawi said last year.

In June 2006, another man, Mustafa Mohammed Salman al-Juburi, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of aiding and abetting the kidnappers. His sentence was later reduced on appeal.

Hassan, who held British, Irish and Iraqi citizenship, was shown in several video messages appealing for her life and calling for British forces to withdraw from Iraq.

Jassar, 25, from Baghdad's Jamaa district where Hassan was abducted, was arrested in May 2008, a day before he planned to travel to Dubai where he had been offered a job.

He had pleaded not guilty to Hassan's murder at last year's trial, although his defence acknowledge that he may have played a part in an attempt to blackmail her family.

Relatives said in 2006 that while Hassan was being held, her husband Tahseen received four phone calls from the kidnappers on her mobile phone.

The hostage-takers, who called themselves "an armed Islamic group", later demanded one million dollars in return for her body.

Hassan was one of the most experienced aid workers in Iraq and opted to stay on to continue her work after the invasion.

Throughout the conflict she led a team working to provide essential aid to hospitals and helping to restore vital power and water supplies.

She was also an outspoken opponent of the United Nations sanctions imposed in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, "a man-made disaster," she said in 1998.

Shortly after Hassan died, her family accused the British government of causing her death by refusing to speak to her captors.

"We believe that the refusal by the British government to open a dialogue with the kidnappers cost our sister her life," her siblings said in a statement at the time.

© 2010 AFP

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