Ex-Blackwater Guards Face Renewed Charges
New York Times (2011-04-23) James Risen
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WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Friday reopened the criminal case against four former American military contractors accused of manslaughter in connection with a shooting that killed at least 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
Criminal charges against the former employees of Blackwater Worldwide
had been dismissed in December 2009 by a federal judge in Washington, who criticized the Justice Department for its handling of the case and ruled that prosecutors had relied on tainted evidence.
The three-judge appeals panel disagreed with that decision, and sent the case back on Friday, ordering Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of Federal District Court to review the evidence against each defendant individually.
“We find that the district court’s findings depend on an erroneous view of the law,” the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled. The appeals judges called on the lower court to determine “as to each defendant, what evidence — if any — the government presented against him that was tainted as to him,” and whether that was enough to justify throwing out the charges.
The former guards affected by the ruling are Evan S. Liberty of Rochester, N.H.; Donald W. Ball of West Valley City, Utah; and Dustin L. Heard of Knoxville, Tenn., all of whom had served with the Marines
before joining Blackwater; and Paul A. Slough from Keller, Tex., who had been in the Army.
A fifth guard had also been indicted, but the charges against him were dropped by the Justice Department before Judge Urbina dismissed the case.
The appeals court ruling was a victory for the Justice Department, which had been bruised by Judge Urbina’s ruling taking it to task for an overzealous prosecution.
“We’re pleased with the ruling and assessing the next steps,” the department spokesman, Dean Boyd, said Friday. Defense lawyers involved in the case did not respond to requests for comment.
The shootings, in the middle of traffic in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, left at least 17 Iraqi civilians dead and set off an anti-American political firestorm in Iraq and an international debate over the role of private security contractors in modern war zones. The Blackwater guards were accused of firing wildly and indiscriminately from their convoy into other cars and at Iraqi civilians. The guards defended their actions, saying they were responding to fire from insurgents.
The Nisour Square shootings became a watershed event in the Iraq war, and led the Iraqi government to demand greater sovereignty and control over foreign contractors operating in the country. The Baghdad government later demanded and won the right to subject foreign contractors to Iraqi law, while the United States government grudgingly began to impose greater curbs on the freewheeling activities of the personnel guarding American diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The earlier dismissal of the charges against the guards, who were indicted in 2008, was met with angry protests in Iraq, while Friday’s action pleased some in Baghdad.
“This new decision has brought optimism and happiness back to me,” said Talib Mutlak, who was injured in the Nisour Square shooting. “This is a victory for the blood of martyrs and injured people who were affected by Blackwater.”
Blackwater itself never truly recovered from the shooting. It quickly became the subject of numerous Congressional and federal investigations and lawsuits for a broad range of activities in Iraq and elsewhere.
Among other troubles, five former Blackwater executives, including the company’s onetime president, were indicted on federal weapons and obstruction charges, two other former guards were charged with murder in connection with a shooting in Afghanistan, and the Justice Department opened an inquiry into whether Blackwater sought to bribe Iraqi officials in order to keep doing business in Iraq after the Nisour Square shooting.
After the shooting, Blackwater changed its name to Xe Services, and then late last year the company’s founder, Erik Prince, sold the business. He has left the United States and moved his family to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Omar al-Jawoshy contributed reporting from Baghdad.