Immunity for Blackwater guards provokes anger

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The Independent US

Democrats have criticised the Bush administration for giving partial immunity to bodyguards from the Blackwater private security firm. They say the move equates to a failure to hold the contractors responsible for the killing of 17 civilians in Iraq last month.

Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the immunity deal another example of "the amnesty administration". "In this administration, accountability goes by the boards," said Senator Leahy, who sits on two Senate panels that oversee the State Department and the Justice Department. "That seems to be a central tenet in the Bush administration – that no one from their team should be held accountable, if accountability can be avoided.

"That goes equally for misconduct and for incompetence," he added. "If you get caught, they will get you immunity. If you get convicted, they will commute your sentence."

The Democratic presidential hopeful Barak Obama demanded to know whether the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was aware of the immunity offers and if she agreed with them. In a letter to Ms Rice yesterday, Mr Obama also asked whether the FBI and Justice Department were consulted before the offers.

Sean McCormack, an assistant secretary of state, said: "Her attitude has been since the very beginning that we need to determine the facts and if the facts lead us to the conclusion that there are those who broke rules laws or regulations, they must be held to account." Ms Rice had also asked that the FBI take over the investigation from her department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, he said. It is still not clear why Diplomatic Security offered immunity and who authorised the move.

The State Department, whose investigators promised to shield the bodyguards' statements to the criminal inquiry into the massacre of 16 September, said that any lawbreakers "must be held to account".

But the offer for limited immunity delayed the US government's criminal inquiry, which incensed the Iraqi government. It also threatens to prevent any prosecutions of the guards because investigators cannot use any evidence gleaned from their statements. They must seek other evidence from a crime scene which is six weeks old.

The inquiry has since been taken over by the Justice Department and the FBI. The FBI is reinterviewing some of the guards and any statements given to them may be used for a future prosecution. However, most of the guards are refusing to co-operate.

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