Four American mercenaries who opened fire into a crowd of unarmed civilians in Baghdad in the apparently mistaken belief they were under attack have been found guilty over the shootings of more than 30 people.
A jury in Washington has convicted Nicholas Slatten of first-degree murder over one death. Three of his colleagues, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, were found guilty of the manslaughter of at least 12 people and of the attempted manslaughter of at least 11 others who were injured.
All four guards were working for the US security firm then known as Blackwater. Following widespread horror at the shootings, Blackwater changed its name to Xe Services.
A total of 14 people were killed and 18 others injured in the shootings in Nisour Square in September 2007.
Slatten now faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The maximum sentence for the manslaughter charges is eight years, but the men also face gun charges that carry a minimum prison term of 30 years.
They had been tasked with making sure that the square was safe for a convoy carrying a US State Department official to pass through.
The guards claimed they were fired upon and insisted they had acted in self-defence. However, federal US prosecutors said there had been no incoming gunfire and that the shootings were entirely unprovoked.
They claimed the guards had a deep hostility towards ordinary Iraqis and “a grave indifference” to whether they lived or died. Prosecutor Anthony Asuncion described how there was “gunfire coming from the left, gunfire coming from the right” as civilians in the crowded square fled.
“These men took something that did not belong to them; the lives of 14 human beings... they were turned into bloody bullet-riddled corpses at the hands of these men,” he told the jury in closing arguments.
“There was not a single dead insurgent on the scene. None of these people were armed.”
Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder for firing the first shot with a sniper’s rifle from the convoy’s command vehicle, killing the driver of a nearby car, medical student Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y.
That led others to open fire indiscriminately into the crowd. Some 14 people were killed and 18 were wounded.
At the trial, two Iraqi traffic officers and one of the injured testified that Mr Al Rubia’y’s car was stationary when the mercenaries first opened fire, supporting the prosecution’s claim that there was no need to do so.
And Blackwater guard Jeremy Ridgeway, a government witness in the case, pleaded guilty to killing Mr Al Rubia’y’s mother, who died in the passenger seat next to her son.
The jury reached verdicts on only some of the total of 33 charges faced by the men, but Judge Royce Lamberth allowed them to announce the decisions that they had reached. The jury was expected to continue deliberating on the other charges. The four men had denied all charges.
Mohamad al-Quraishy, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, said the Iraqi people had been closely monitoring the trial, hoping that the guards would be convicted.
“They will welcome this decision,” he said.
David Schertler, a lawyer for Dustin Heard, strongly implied they would appeal.
“The verdict is wrong, it’s incomprehensible,” he said.
“We’re devastated. We’re going to fight it every step of the way. We still think we’re going to win.”
William Coffield, a defence lawyer, earlier admitted there was “a lot of tragedy here”, but insisted the four men on trial had not been to blame.
However, several former Blackwater guards testified that they had been distrustful of Iraqis generally, saying they had been led into ambushes on occasion.
Blackwater was set up by a former US Navy Seal, Erik Prince, who had links to George W Bush’s administration. Mr Prince sold his stake in the firm in 2010, blaming “politics” in Washington and a failure to “appreciate” the work it had done in Iraq.
Blackwater’s employees were linked to 195 shooting incidents between 2005 and 2008 while conducting international operations. They also took part in clandestine operations run by the CIA.