One of the darkest episodes during the U.S. occupation of Iraq last decade is finally resulting in the prosecution of private American security guards who killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians in a single incident.
The name Blackwater became famous after the 2007 event in which guards from the security firm’s Raven 23 unit opened fire in Baghdad’s Nisour Square on September 16. The shootings, which the Iraqi government said were unprovoked, killed 14 people and wounded 20 others.
The guards claimed they came under attack from insurgents while carrying out their duties for the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), which had hired the firm that has since undergone multiple name changes (Blackwater Worldwide, then Xe Services, now Academi).
Following the incident, DSS officials forced the Blackwater specialists to provide written statements of the shootings in exchange for full immunity from criminal prosecution. That decision by the State Department derailed the U.S. Department of Justice’s first attempt to prosecute the guards once they returned to the U.S.
A federal appeals court then reinstated the charges, saying the lower court had erred in dismissing the case.
The Justice Department last October filed new charges against four of the guards: Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard, and Nicholas Slatten. The men face multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and firearms violations.
The presiding judge, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, DC, announced that the new trial will begin on June 11.
Lamberth also was highly critical of the State Department’s handling of the Nisour Square tragedy.
“The court finds it disturbing that it has taken seven years of hard-fought litigation to finally reach the June trial date set in this case,” Lamberth wrote in a redacted opinion (pdf). “If the Department of State and Diplomatic Security Service had tried deliberately to sabotage this prosecution, they could hardly have done a better job.”
The judge characterized the decision to grant immunity as “questionable at best,” given the State Department or DSS may have lacked the legal authority to take such action without the approval of the U.S. attorney general.
Lamberth also brought up the fact that the guards’ statements were leaked to the media, which undermined the government’s original attempt to prosecute, leading to a dismissal of the indictments.
“It is incredible the way these defendants were coerced into making statements to DSS agents,” he wrote. “The impropriety of this was well-settled law at the time. Even more egregious, though, was the leaking to the news media of all the statements given. Yet it appears there has been no investigation of these circumstances and no one has been held accountable. Nor is there any reason to think anyone learned a lesson from this fiasco or that any steps have been taken to avoid a repetition.”
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen has been asked by Lamberth to request that the State Department’s inspector general investigate the decision to grant immunity to the guards.
-Noel Brinkerhoff, allgov.com
To Learn More:
Judge Blasts U.S. for Blackwater ‘Injustice’ (by Annie Youderian, Courthouse News Service)
Judge Slaps State Department over Blackwater (by Pete Yost, Associated Press)
United States v. Paul Slough (U.S. District Court, District of Columbia) (pdf)
Did Bush Justice Dept. Purposely Sabotage Blackwater Massacre Case? (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)