The United States Justice Department has brought new charges against four former Blackwater Worldwide security contractors for their role in a massacre that took place in 2007 in Nisoor Square in Baghdad, Iraq.
As reported by the Associated Press, “Dustin Heard, a retired U.S. Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a retired U.S. Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former U.S. Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn., and Paul Slough, a U.S. Army veteran from Keller, Texas,” will each faces charges.
Heard and Liberty face 13 counts of “voluntary manslaughter” and 16 counts of “attempt to commit manslaughter.” Slatten faces 14 counts of “voluntary manslaughter” and 16 counts of “attempt to commit manslaughter.” Slough faces 13 counts of “voluntary manslaughter” and 18 counts of “attempt to commit manslaughter.”
Each former Blackwater employee was also charged with “one count of using and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.”
AP additionally reported that the charges come under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which the media organization describes as “a statute that allows the government to prosecute certain government employees and contractors for crimes committed overseas.”
This breathes new life into a case that most probably thought the Justice Department had long abandoned.
Seventeen Iraqi civilians were killed in Nisoor Square. At least twenty were injured.
Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, has described in detail what happened. Just after noon on September 16, 2007, a twenty-year old Iraqi medical student was in a white opal sedan with his mother. They pulled “into this intersection in the Mansour district of Baghdad into Nisoor Square, and at the same time that they’re arriving at this place, four heavily armored vehicles [were] driving allegedly down the wrong side of the road.” They shot the young student right through his head.
“According to the witnesses, including this individual, the shooting of this young Iraqi medical student and his mother really began a shooting —a series of shootings in the square,” Scahill said on “Democracy Now!” “When the initial shots were fired, what happened was that this mother [was] sitting in the car and [saw] her son’s head essentially explode after being shot, and she [grabbed] onto him. And it was an automatic car, and so what may have happened is that the car continued to sort of veer toward the Blackwater men.”
Blackwater operatives allegedly shot and fired at this woman as she was holding her son, and these cops were there, and they realized that she wasn’t getting out of the car. She was gripping her son’s body, shouting, “My son! My son! Help me!” And it became clear to the Iraqi police officers that more shots were going to come, and so they actually fled themselves, realizing that shooting was going to happen again. And so, the witnesses say that they continued shooting at this car, and it ultimately exploded, burning them inside.
One of the other victims who was killed was a nine-year-old boy named Ali, who was shot in his head, his brains splattering on his father. And his dad described — and I talk about this in the book — how he could still feel his son’s heart beating, and so he rushed to the hospital to try to save his son’s life. And he ultimately returned to the scene the next day to try to pick up pieces of his son’s skull to bury at the holy city — Iraqi holy city of Najaf.
Thus far, the Blackwater contractors believed to have been responsible for the massacre have avoided justice.
In 2008, three of the four men, who again face charges, were charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and a weapons violation (along with Donald Ball). Then, just over a year later, the charges were dismissed when a US district court judge found that the case against the men had been improperly constructed because the State Department promised statements on what happened would not be used to prosecute them . A US federal appeals court then reinstated the charges against the men in April 2011.
When in June 2012 the Supreme Court refused to review this decision by the federal appeals court, the prosecution was able to move onward. About a month later, the Justice Department indicated a new indictment would be brought against the men but no new indictment was issued that year.
The Justice Department declined to bring a case against Donald Ball, which AP indicates is a “retired Marine from West Valley City, Utah. Jeremy Ridgeway, who is a sixth guard involved in the shootings, has pled guilty to being involved already and awaits sentencing.
Ridgeway, who served as a turret gunner, according to a report by Ryan Devereaux, admitted in sworn statements that the contractors had “opened fire with automatic weapons and grenade launchers on unarmed civilians … killing at least fourteen people.” They were not authorized to leave the Green Zone. And, “none of these victims was an insurgent, and many were shot while inside of civilian vehicles that were attempting to flee.”
The New York Times reported in November 2009 that top executives had paid Iraqi officials about $1 million to “silence their criticism and buy their support” after the massacre.
On January 6, 2010, the US government settled a civil lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of victims who were injured and family members of those killed. The complaint filed by CCR alleged that Slough was deeply hostile toward Iraqi civilians and had routinely thrown “water bottles and other items at unarmed civilians and vehicles without justification in an attempt to break automobile window, injure and harass people.”
Slatten, similarly, had allegedly wanted to kill “as many Iraqis as he could as ‘payback for 9/11,'” according to the complaint. He would boast about “the number of Iraqis he had shot.” He would instigate battles by firing his weapon and also throw water bottles and other items at civilians.
On May 23, 2007, the complaint alleged Liberty had fired an automatic weapon from a turret position of a Blackwater armored vehicle without regard for who the bullets may have hit. He later allegedly fired an automatic weapon from a Blackwater armored vehicle on September 9, 2007, and killed and seriously wounded innocent Iraqis. For those alleged murders, he faced a separate lawsuit.
Heard allegedly was hostile toward Iraqi civilians and admitted in the weeks after the massacre that he had not been “honest with State Department investigatiors who were investigating the shooting.”
These were the kind of men CCR claimed the firm’s founder, Erik Prince, had been looking for when he built up the private army he had contracted to defend diplomats in Iraq during the war and occupation.
Blackwater Worldwide is now Academi and was Xe Services LLC. It has gone through re-brandings after involvement in atrocities and allegations of criminal conduct by its employees. Prince also no longer runs the business.
In addition to the Nisoor Square massacre, Blackwater Worldwide employees have been found to have been involved in weapons smuggling but, as I wrote about in February, the Justice Department threw that case and two former executives avoided harsh punishment after pleading guilty to a minor count of “failing to make and maintain records related to firearms.”
Individuals implicated in the case involving weapons smuggling were people who had encouraged and conspired to cover up criminal and murderous acts. They were people known to have habitually committed crimes because it is the nature of the company’s mercenary operations. However, the Justice Department overlooked all of that and allowed Blackwater to greymail them in court and threaten to suggest this weapons smuggling had taken place under the direction of the CIA.
It may seem less likely now, but one has to wonder what dirty trick the former security contractors will pull in court this time. What do they think they have on the US government from working for Blackwater that they can threaten to expose if the Justice Department continues to pursue this case? Or do they no longer have that kind of leverage and will Iraqis finally see justice served?
More than six years later, someone ought to go to jail for committing what was one of the worst atrocities in the war in Iraq.