U.S. Contractors Convicted in 2007 Blackwater Baghdad Traffic Massacre

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct 23 2014 (IPS)

-
A federal jury here Wednesday convicted one former Blackwater
contractor of murder and three of his colleagues of voluntary
manslaughter in the deadly shootings of 14 unarmed civilians killed in
Baghdad's Nisour Square seven years ago.

The judge in the case ordered the men detained pending sentencing.

"To
this day, the U.S. government continues to award Blackwater and its
successor entities millions of dollars each year in contracts,
essentially rewarding war crimes." -- Baher Azmy

The
massacre, which resulted in a wave of popular anger in Iraq against the
United States, and especially the army of private security contractors
which it employed there, contributed heavily to the Iraqi government's
later refusal to sign an agreement with Washington to extend the U.S.
military presence there.

It also sealed the reputation of
Blackwater, a "private military" firm headed by Erik Prince, a
right-wing former Navy Seal, as a trigger-happy mercenary outfit whose
recklessness and insensitivity to local populations jeopardised
Washington's interests in conflict situations.

After the incident,
the Iraqi government banned the company, which had a one-billion-dollar
contract at the time to protect U.S. diplomats. Iraq's parliament
subsequently enacted laws making foreign contractors working in the
country subject to Iraqi legal jurisdiction for criminal acts they
committed.

It was Baghdad's insistence in 2011 that such a
condition also apply to all U.S. military forces that scotched a
proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would have permitted
Washington to maintain thousands U.S. troops in Iraq after the Dec. 31,
2011 deadline for their final withdrawal.

"The verdict is a
resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the
rule of law, even in times of war," said Ronald Machen, the U.S.
attorney who prosecuted the case, after the Wednesday's verdicts were
announced.

"Seven years ago, these Blackwater contractors
unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers on
innocent men, women and children. Today, they were held accountable for
that outrageous attack and its devastating consequences for so many
Iraqi families," he said in a statement.

While
praising the verdicts, some observers said that Blackwater itself
should have been on trial. "(H)olding individuals responsible is not
enough," noted Baher Azmy, the legal director of the Center for
Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represented Iraqi victims of the
killings in a human-rights case against Blackwater that settled in 2010.

"Private
military contractors ...have engaged in a variety of war crimes and
atrocities during the [2003 Iraq] invasion and occupation while reaping
billions of dollars in profits from the war. To this day, the U.S.
government continues to award Blackwater and its successor entities
millions of dollars each year in contracts, essentially rewarding war
crimes," he said.

Wednesday's verdicts, which confirmed initial
findings by an FBI investigation carried out within two months of the
massacre, are likely to be appealed to a higher court by the defendants'
attorneys who contend that the convoy they were leading had come under
attack and that their clients were acting in self-defence at the time.

They
are also likely to challenge the verdicts on the grounds that key
evidence presented to the jury consisted of initial statements of what
took place that were effectively "coerced" by interrogators who
allegedly assured them that what they said would not be used in court.
That issue has been bounced between courts since the Justice Department
filed the case in 2010.

Altogether, 17 Iraqi civilians, including
two boys aged nine and 11, were killed and 20 more injured when, on Sep.
16, 2007, a State Department convoy entered Baghdad's busy Nisour
Square with the armoured Blackwater vehicle in the lead.

While
defendants and Blackwater itself insisted that the convoy came under
attack, the FBI and prosecution contended there was no evidence to
sustain such a conclusion.

According to the latter, the unit's
sniper, Nicholas Slatten, opened fire on a car which, according to the
defence, had approached the Blackwater vehicle in a suspicious manner.
Slatten's shots, which killed the car's driver, a medical student,
triggered chaos throughout the circle.

In addition to Slatten, who
was convicted of first-degree murder, a total of six members of the
Blackwater team fired their weapons as they moved through the circle,
according to the prosecution.

One team member, Jeremy Ridgeway,
pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter in 2008 and served
as a prosecution witness in the case. Charges against another defendant
were dropped shortly afterwards. Several other team members also
testified against the defendants.

Aside from Slatten's conviction,
three other guards Wednesday were found guilty of voluntary
manslaughter, as well as various weapons offences.

The Justice
Department had charged that they "unlawfully and intentionally, upon a
sudden quarrel and heat of passion," did commit voluntary manslaughter."

If
sustained, Slatten's murder conviction requires a sentence of life
imprisonment. Each count of voluntary manslaughter - and each of the
other three defendants were convicted of multiple counts - can carry a
prison sentence of up to 15 years.

The trial itself began earlier
this summer and lasted two months. In addition to the Blackwater guards
who testified for the prosecution, the Justice Department brought 30
Iraqi witnesses, including surviving family members who witnessed or
were injured in the incident, to testify. Despite their dramatic and
often wrenching accounts, the trial received relatively little media
attention.

The verdicts were hailed by Paul Dickinson, an attorney
who represented six of the families - including the nine-year-old
victim, Ali Kinani, whose father was the first witness to testify for
the prosecution in the current case - whose members were killed or
injured in the massacre in a separate civil lawsuit filed against
Blackwater in North Carolina in 2009. That case settled with an
undisclosed compensation agreement in 2012.

"I am confident that
my clients are pleased with today's verdict, knowing that the men they
alleged killed their family members have been brought to justice and
held criminally accountable for their actions," he told IPS in an email.
"While a criminal conviction can never fully satisfy a family that lost
a loved one, it does provide some closure for my clients."

The
verdict, he said, was "significant because it shows that government
contractors who commit crimes abroad can be prosecuted in US courts for
their criminal actions."

Pratap Chatterjee, an investigative
reporter who has focused on the operations of U.S. military contractors,
including Blackwater, in Iraq and Afghanistan, agreed with that
assessment, but, echoing CCR's Asmy, stressed that it was "only one step
of many that need to be taken in bringing justice to Iraq."

"Many
similar incidents have neither been investigated nor anyone
prosecuted," Chatterjee, who currently heads California-based Corpwatch,
told IPS. "To this day, the private companies and their executives who
turned Baghdad into a free-fire zone have yet to be charged."

Earlier
this summer, the New York Times reported that the State Department had
initiated an investigation of Blackwater's operations in Iraq just
before the Nisour incident but had abandoned it after Blackwater's top
manager there issued an apparent death threat. According to a State
Department memo of the conversation, the Blackwater official said "that
he could kill" the government's chief investigator and "no one could or
would do anything about it as we were in Iraq."

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
  • 196 Corpwatch in the News