Almost four years after the case was dramatically thrown out, four former Blackwater Worldwide security guards accused of unlawfully killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad have now been charged in connection with the incident following a new indictment handed down by a US grand jury.
The shooting, which took place on 16 September 2007 and left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, provoked international outcry, inflamed anti-US sentiment in Iraq and gave rise to concerns about the use of private contractors by American armed forces operating abroad. Blackwater Worldwide has since renamed itself twice, first as XE Services and then as Academi. An FBI investigation of the incident found that, of the 17 Iraqis killed, at least 14 were without cause.
The defendants – 34-year-old Paul Slough, 29-year-old Nicholas Slatten, 31-year-old Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, 32 – were part of a Blackwater contingent contracted to protect US State Department officials in the country. On the day of the shooting, their convoy was among a group of Blackwater teams responding to a bombing in Baghdad. Its mandate: to help secure an evacuation route.
However, prosecutors say the defendants used sniper rifles, machine guns and grenades against ordinary Iraqis, including women and children, in an act of brutal, unprovoked violence. Fourteen unarmed civilians were killed and a further 18 injured during the attack at Nisour Square, a traffic circle close to a heavily fortified area known as the “Green Zone” containing several embassies. The four former guards have previously pleaded not guilty to the accusations.
Initial charges were filed in 2008. But that prosecution was dealt a major blow in 2009, when a US District Judge threw out the government’s case. Judge Ricardo Urbina said prosecutors had used tainted evidence to secure the 2008 indictment and build their case. In particular, the Judge objected to the use of statements that the guards had given to State Department investigators in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, at a time when the accused guards believed that their accounts would not be used in court. “The explanations offered by the prosecutors and investigators in an attempt to justify their actions and persuade the court that they did not use the defendants’ compelled testimony were all too often contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility,” Judge Urbina wrote.
Government prosecutors eventually convinced an appellate court to reverse Judge Urbina’s ruling two years ago, paving the way for the new indictment handed down by a grand jury which charges the four men with voluntary manslaughter. The original case also featured a fifth defendant, charges against whom were dropped last month.
“According to the [new] indictment, a limited number of members of the Blackwater team unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers on ordinary people going about their daily lives,” Ronald Machen Jr, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia, said. “The vast majority of the US contractors who served in Iraq did so with honour and integrity, but, as alleged . . . these defendants abused their power through a relentless attack on unarmed civilians.”
The guards told US investigators that they opened fire on the crowd in self-defence. “We are disappointed that the Department of Justice has chosen to proceed with this prosecution, which we strongly believe has no merit whatsoever,” said attorney David Schertler, who represents Heard.