Pioneering Blackwater Protesters Given Secret Trial and Criminal Conviction
Alter Net (2008-01-29) Jeremy Scahill
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More Info: Blackwater, Blackwater In Moyock
Last week in Currituck County, N.C., Superior Court Judge Russell Duke
presided over the final step in securing the first criminal conviction
stemming from the deadly actions of Blackwater Worldwide, the Bush
administration's favorite mercenary company. Lest you think you missed
some earth-shifting, breaking news, hold on a moment. The "criminals"
in question were not the armed thugs who gunned down 17 Iraqi civilians
and wounded more than 20 others in Baghdad's Nisour Square last
September. They were seven nonviolent activists who had the audacity to
stage a demonstration at the gates of Blackwater's 7,000-acre private
military base in North Carolina to protest the actions of mercenaries
acting with impunity -- and apparent immunity -- in their names and
those of every American.
The arrest of the activists and the subsequent five days they spent
locked up in jail is more punishment than any Blackwater mercenaries
have received for their deadly actions against Iraqi civilians. "The
courts pretend that adherence to the law is what makes for an orderly
and peaceable world," said Steve Baggarly, one of the protest
organizers. "In fact, U.S. law and courts stand idly by while the U.S.
military and private armies like Blackwater have killed, maimed,
brutalized and destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of
A month after the Nisour Square massacre, on Oct. 20, a group of about
50 activists gathered outside Blackwater's gates in Moyock, N.C. There,
they reenacted the Nisour Square shooting and staged a "die-in,"
involving a vehicle painted with bullet marks and blood. The activists
stained their clothing with fake blood and dramatized the deadly
shooting spree. Some of the demonstrators marked Blackwater's large
welcome sign -- with the company's bear claw in a sniper scope logo --
with red hand prints. The demonstrators believed these "would be a much
more appropriate logo for Blackwater," according to Baggarly. "We're
all responsible for what is happening in Iraq. We all have bloody
hands." It took only moments for the local police to respond to the
protest, the first ever at Blackwater's headquarters. In the end, seven
The symbolism was stark: Re-enact a Blackwater massacre, go to jail.
Commit a massacre, walk around freely and perhaps never go to jail. All
seven were charged with criminal trespassing, six of them with an
additional charge of resisting arrest and one with another charge of
injury to real property. "We feel like Blackwater is trespassing in
Iraq," Baggarly later said. "And as for injuring property, they injure
men, women and children every day." The activists were jailed for five
days and eventually released pending trial.
When their day in court arrived, on Dec. 5, the activists intended to
put Blackwater on trial, something the Justice Department, the military
and the courts have systematically failed to do. Their action at
Blackwater, the activists said, was in response to war crimes, the
killing of civilians and the fact that no legal system -- civilian or
military -- was holding Blackwater responsible. The Nisour Square
massacre, they said, "is the Iraq war in microcosm."
But District Court Judge Edgar Barnes would have none of it. So
outraged was he at Baggarly, the first of the defendants to appear
before him that day, that the judge cleared the court following his
conviction. No spectators, no family members, no journalists, no
defense witnesses remained. The other six activists were tried in total
secrecy -- well, secret to everyone except the prosecutors, sheriffs,
government witnesses and one Blackwater official. Judge Barnes swiftly
tried the remaining six activists behind closed doors and convicted
them all. It was as though Currituck, N.C., became Gitmo for a day.
It's not unusual for a judge to clear a courtroom when there is a
disruption by the public. Nor is it rare for judges to try to prevent
activists from turning the tables and attempting to put the government
-- or in this case a mercenary company -- on trial. But witnesses that
day report that there was no disruption -- and the defendants say they
were immediately cut off when they strayed from the narrow scope of the
trespass charge to discuss Blackwater's actions or the war. So why
clear the courtroom? That may be a question for Judge Barnes in the
end, but it's hard not to view his conduct through the same veil of
secrecy that shrouds all of Blackwater's actions -- and the seemingly
endless lengths to which the Bush administration will go to protect
That was certainly how the activists saw it. "He didn't want people
influenced by our message," Baggarly said. "There have been hundreds of
thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq. If we're going to speak about
that, nobody is allowed to hear it."
The North Carolina chapter of the ACLU quickly stepped in, saying it
knew of no similar action in any previous criminal trials in the state.
"It's a clear violation of constitutional rights, not only of the
defendants but the press and public," said Katy Parker, the group's
legal director. "They have a right to a public trial, so any trial that
goes on behind closed doors is a farce." She added, "We are very
concerned about this reported disrespect for the laws of our land by a
member of the judiciary, especially in a controversial and politically
laden case such as this." The ACLU filed a complaint against Barnes
with the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, asking it to
The activists appealed their convictions and were back in court last
week, on Jan. 24, in front of Superior Court Judge Russell Duke. Unlike
Judge Barnes, Duke allowed the defendants some freedom of speech and
graciously decided to let the public witness the daylong trial. In his
statement before the court, Baggarly recalled the story of one of the
Nisour Square victims he and his fellow activists attempted to
dramatize in their protest: "Mohammed Hafiz was driving four children
when Blackwater mercenaries riddled the car with bullets. His
ten-year-old son Ali was shot in the head. Mohammed had to gather up
pieces of the child's skull and brains for the burial. During one point
in the massacre, Blackwater operatives concentrated fire on a passenger
bus. A small boy fled the bus in terror and was shot down as was his
mother who ran after him."
The defendents said that they believed no court would hold Blackwater
responsible for these killings and that, by committing civil
disobedience on the company's private military base that day, they were
guided by higher principles, citing the U.S. Constitution and the
Bible. "U.S. law has immunized Blackwater, both in Iraq and at home,
allowing it unrestricted license to kill and a five-year reign of
terror," said Baggarly. The activists invoked the tradition of Martin
Luther King Jr., Gandhi and the conveners of the Boston Tea Party.
"'Made in the U.S.A.' is written all over those bullets that are flying
all over Baghdad," one of the activists, Bill Streit, told the judge.
"We're sick at heart about that."
Rather than ignore or dismiss their motivations, Judge Duke engaged the
defendents in a theological discussion, challenging their Biblical
interpretation and, at one point, admonishing the activists, many of
whom are members of the Catholic Worker movement. "I've always thought
that if you're going to be a follower of Jesus or someone who
appreciates the Constitution, you can't select the portions that you
like and disregard the rest," he said. The fact that the hearing was
held at the same moment that the country was remembering the legacy of
MLK, who called on his supporters to break unjust laws that violated
the rights of others, seemed to be lost on Judge Duke. Perhaps he
should have read Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," in which
he wrote to other clergy accusing him of political extremism:
"[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust … One has not only
a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one
has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with
St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.' … We should never
forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' … Any
law that degrades human personality is unjust … I submit that an
individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and
who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse
the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality
expressing the highest respect for law."
It was in this tradition that those seven Americans found themselves
engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at Blackwater's gates last
October and the very reason they were before Judge Duke last week.
Whether this mattered to him or not, Judge Duke's words were
interesting, given the religious fanaticism and avowed patriotism of
Blackwater's owner, Erik Prince. Like the "Blackwater 7," Prince
considers himself a dedicated Christian and professes his love of
country. How would Prince answer the judge if faced with a trial for
the actions of his Blackwater killers in Iraq? How would he reconcile
the killing of innocents by his men with the teachings of Jesus? What
would his moral defense sound like?
The sad reality in this country right now -- as it was in Dr. King's
day -- is that those who really belong before judges are not.
Prosecutions are sought and secured for activists standing against
killing and injustice and not for those meting it out. In the end,
Judge Duke sentenced the activists to time served. It was the lightest
sentence he could have issued -- but a far greater one than any
Blackwater mercenary has faced for killing an Iraqi.
For its part, Blackwater issued a statement that would be funny if it
wasn't so lethally ironic. "Many of the extraordinary professionals
currently working for Blackwater are veterans who served their country
in support of -- among other things -- the right to free speech and to
peacefully protest in accordance with the law," said Blackwater
spokesperson Anne Tyrrell. "We respect every person's right to speak
out in support of his or her beliefs, but if laws are violated, it is
the court system's responsibility to hold them accountable."
Tyrrell is right about one thing: The courts should hold the violators
of laws accountable. But is that Blackwater's true position on its own
conduct? Is that the Bush administration's position? No. Time and
again, Blackwater and the White House have fought against having
meaningful sanctions applied to mercenary forces. In fact, while the
trial of the "Blackwater 7" was under way, last week the Bush
administration was fighting once again to ensure continued immunity for
Blackwater and other mercenary firms in Iraq. If we really were a
nation of laws, there would be a lot of Blackwater mercenaries behind
bars right now facing stiffer penalties than five days in jail. And
these men would hardly be prisoners of conscience like the activists
who protested Blackwater's lethal actions in Iraq.
In the end, before Judge Duke sent the activists home, he told them,
"We're not here about what's happening in Iraq." Tragically for the
U.S. Constitution and deadly for Iraqi civilians, when it comes to
Blackwater and other merchants of death, this has been true of the
American justice system for five years too long.
Jeremy Scahill, an independent journalist who reports frequently for
the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, has spent extensive
time reporting from Iraq and Yugoslavia. He is currently a Puffin
Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. Scahill is the author of
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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