New year, same U.S. justice system
By Mail Foreign Service
U.S. judge throws out case against Blackwater guards charged with killing 17 Iraqis
The case against five Blackwater security guards charged with the killing of 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians has been tossed out on a technicality.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina dismissed the case against the guards accused of the shooting in a crowded Baghdad crossroads in 2007.
The case had inflamed anti-American sentiment abroad. Iraq slammed the judge’s decision today.
Ali al-Dabagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, said in a statement that the government was dismayed by the court’s dismissal of the case.
‘The Iraqi government regrets the decision,’ he said. ‘Investigations conducted by specialized Iraqi authorities confirmed unequivocally that the guards of Blackwater committed the crime of murder and broke the rules by using arms without the existence of any threat obliging them to use force.’
Dr. Haitham Ahmed, whose wife and son were killed in the shooting, said the decision casts doubt on the integrity of the entire U.S. justice system.
‘If a judge … dismissed the trial, that is ridiculous and the whole thing has been but a farce,’ Ahmed said. ‘The rights of our victims and the rights of the innocent people should not be wasted.’
The Iraqi government had wanted the guards to face trial in their country and officials there had said they would closely watch how the U.S. judicial system handled the case.
Judge Urbina said the prosecutors built their case on sworn statements that had been given under a promise of immunity.
That violated the guards’ constitutional rights, he said.
He also accused prosecutors of ignoring the advice of senior Justice Department officials.
The case against the five men fell apart because, after the shooting, the State Department ordered the guards to explain what happened.
In exchange for those statements, the State Department promised the statements would not be used in a criminal case.
Such limited immunity deals are common in police departments so officers involved in shootings cannot hold up internal investigations by refusing to co-operate.
The five guards told investigators they fired their weapons, an admission that was crucial because forensic evidence could not determine who had fired.
Because of the immunity deal, prosecutors had to build their case without those statements, a high legal hurdle that Urbina said the Justice Department failed to clear.
The five guards had been charged with manslaughter and weapons violations. The charges carried mandatory 30-year prison terms.
The guards claimed insurgents ambushed them in a traffic circle in Nisoor Square.
Prosecutors said the men unleashed an unprovoked attack on civilians using machine guns and grenades.
Some Blackwater guards told prosecutors they were concerned about the shooting and offered to co-operate.
Others said the convoy had been attacked.
By the time the FBI began investigating, Nisoor Square had been picked clean of bullets that might have proven whether there had been a fire-fight or a massacre.
The judge was unequivocal in his decision, dismissing the government’s explanations as ‘contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility’.
‘We’re obviously disappointed by the decision,’ Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said. ‘We’re still in the process of reviewing the opinion and considering our options.’
Prosecutors can appeal the ruling.
Blackwater contractors had been hired to guard U.S. diplomats in Iraq. But the shooting led to the unravelling of the controversial North Carolina-based company, which since has replaced its management and changed its name to Xe Services.
The five guards are Donald Ball, a former Marine from Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Tennessee; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from New Hampshire; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Tennessee, and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from Keller, Texas.
Defence attorneys said the guards were thrilled by the ruling after more than two years of scrutiny.
‘It’s tremendously gratifying to see the court allow us to celebrate the new year the way it has,’ said attorney Bill Coffield, who represents Liberty.
The Iraqi government has refused to grant Blackwater a license to continue operating in the country, prompting the State Department to refuse to renew its contracts with the company.
In a statement released by its president, Joseph Yorio, the company said it was happy to have the shooting behind it.
‘Like the people they were protecting, our Xe professionals were working for a free, safe and democratic Iraq for the Iraqi people,’ Yorio said. ‘With this decision, we feel we can move forward and continue to assist the United States in its mission to help the people of Iraq and Afghanistan find a peaceful, democratic future.’
Dozens of Iraqis, including the estates of some of the victims allegedly killed by Blackwater employees, filed a separate lawsuit last year alleging that Blackwater employees engaged in indiscriminate killings and beatings. The civil case is still before a Virginia court.