Washington DC – It took a long and complicated legal process for four employees of a US private security firm to be convicted of the murder of 14 Iraqi citizens in September 2007 in Nisour Square in Baghdad.
U.S. prosecutors said the Black water The contractors used sniper weapons, machine guns and grenade launchers to indiscriminately shoot civilians in the crowded roundabout, causing massive carnage and the murder of two children.
The four men, who are veterans of the United States military, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
But in an instant, US President Donald Trump reversed those measures when he pardoned Nicholas Slatten, Paul Alvin Slough, Evan Shawn Liberty and Dustin Laurent Heard earlier this week, in a move described by lawyers and human rights defenders as a miscarriage of justice.
“This forgiveness is an insult to justice and an insult to the victims who have waited so many years to see some justice,” Sarah Holewinski, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
After the multi-year legal process that included retrial, Slatten was condemned in 2019 to life in prison without parole for the murder of Ahmed Haithem Ahmed al-Rubia’y, a 19-year-old medical student who was driving his mother to a date when he was killed.
The other three Blackwater contractors were convicted of intentional manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and other charges in a 2014 trial. After an appeal and a new conviction, they were each sentenced 12 to 15 years in prison.
The murders, which took place as Blackwater employees escorted a US convoy of vehicles through the Iraqi capital, sparked international outcry and raised questions about the ethics of using private security contractors in wars Americans abroad.
Holewinski said two boys under the age of 12 were among the victims in Nisour Square that day.
“When the US Department of Justice prosecuted these men, we saw the rule of law at work. Now Trump’s contempt for the rule of law is on full display, ”she said.
– Sarah (Holewinski) Yager (@HolewinskiSarah) December 23, 2020
Long legal proceedings
Lawyers representing the victims say more than 30 people traveled from Iraq to the United States to testify in the criminal case against the Blackwater contractors.
They recounted the horrors that took place on that day 13 years ago, when 17 Iraqis were killed and at least 30 people were injured in what they called a massacre. The FBI charged the men with 14 deaths they said violated the use of lethal force.
In court, contractors’ defense teams claimed the men opened fire after being ambushed by armed fighters.
Blackwater, now renamed Academi, was founded by Erik Prince, a staunch ally of Trump and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It was one of several private military companies hired to assist the US military in Iraq after its invasion and occupation of the country in 2003.
Citing an internal Department of Defense census, the Brookings Institution said nearly 160,000 U.S. private contractors were employed by many companies operating in Iraq in 2007 – almost as many as the total number American soldiers stationed there at the time.
“These veterans were working in Iraq in 2007 as contractors responsible for the security of American personnel,” Trump said in his official leniency. declaration Tuesday, about the Blackwater employees.
“When the convoy tried to establish a blockade outside the ‘Green Zone’, the situation turned violent, resulting in unfortunate deaths and injuries to Iraqi civilians,” said the US president.
Paul Dickinson, a litigation lawyer who represented six victims and their families in a civil lawsuit that was settled out of court in 2010, said the pardons are “a slap in the face” for the victims.
“Until two days ago, we had done the right thing for the people in Iraq who had been the victims of these shootings,” Dickinson told Al Jazeera.
“All the time and effort that the FBI and federal prosecutors put into this has been wiped out,” he said.
“These victims were slapped in the face because the United States government told them we were going to fight for them, that we were going to hold people accountable for the crimes they committed.”
Dickinson said Blackwater contractors routinely did not follow the rules of engagement in Iraq, indiscriminately shooting cars and buildings and often disrespecting locals. For many Iraqis, it was difficult to tell the difference between the US military and private contractors.
“ I dealt a blow to justice ”
Ali al-Bayati, a member of the Iraqi Human Rights Commission, said the pardons hurt Iraqi victims who believed in American justice and undermined the United States’ position in a protracted conflict.
“The world views the United States as a superpower and a defender of democracy and human rights,” al-Bayati told Al Jazeera.
“The President of the United States abused his authority and power,” he said, adding that pardons “were a blow to justice” and damaged “the reputation of the United States” so much. in Iraq and abroad.
Trump’s decision in Blackwater is one in a series of pardons allies and loyalists emitted during his last weeks in power. Over the past week, he has pardoned nearly 50 people.
Al-Bayati has said he hopes US President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated on January 20, would reverse the pardons of the Blackwater contractors.
“We hope that the new president will change the behavior of the United States towards the international community and Iraq, because these actions have deeply hurt Iraq,” he said.
Meanwhile, Blackwater’s pardons continue to resonate among civil and human rights activists in the United States, who say they exemplify Trump’s contempt for the rule of law.
“President Trump’s decision to pardon four mass murderers shows how little respect he has for our legal system and the sanctity of human life, especially the lives of Muslims and people of color,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said in a statement.
“These Blackwater mercenaries have been convicted of committing one of the most infamous war crimes of the US occupation of Iraq,” Awad said. “To forgive them is an act of unacceptable moral madness.”