Washington, DC – It took a drawn-out and complicated legal process for four employees of a private United States security firm to be convicted in the September 2007 killings of 14 Iraqi citizens in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
US prosecutors said the heavily armed Blackwater contractors used sniper weapons, machine guns and grenade launchers to indiscriminately fire at civilians in the crowded traffic circle, causing massive carnage and the killing of two children.
All four men, who are US army veterans, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
But in an instant, US President Donald Trump undid 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 pardon is an insult to justice and an insult to the victims who waited so many years to see some measure of justice,” Sarah Holewinski, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
After the years-long legal process that included re-trials, Slatten was sentenced 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 an appointment when he was killed.
The three other Blackwater contractors were convicted of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and other charges in a 2014 trial. After an appeal and resentencing, they were each given between 12- and 15-year prison terms.
The killings, which took place as the Blackwater employees escorted a US convoy of vehicles in the Iraqi capital, prompted an international outcry and raised questions about the ethics of using private security contractors in US wars abroad.
Holewinski said two boys below age 12 were among the victims in Nisour Square that day.
“When the US Justice Department 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
Lengthy court proceedings
Lawyers representing the victims say more than 30 people travelled from Iraq to the US to testify in the criminal proceedings against the Blackwater contractors.
They recounted the horrors that took place 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 that they determined violated the use of deadly force.
In court, the contractors’ defence teams argued the men opened fire after being ambushed by armed fighters.
Blackwater, now renamed Academi, was founded by Erik Prince, a staunch Trump ally and the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. It was one of several private military firms hired to assist the US army in Iraq following its 2003 invasion and occupation of the country.
Citing an internal Department of Defense census, the Brookings Institution said almost 160,000 US private contractors were employed by numerous firms operating in Iraq in 2007 – nearly as many as the total number of US soldiers stationed there at the time.
“These veterans were working in Iraq in 2007 as security contractors responsible for securing the safety of United States personnel,” Trump said in his official clemency statement on Tuesday, about the Blackwater employees.
“When the convoy attempted to establish a blockade outside the ‘Green Zone,’ the situation turned violent, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians,” the US president said.
Paul Dickinson, a litigation lawyer who represented six victims and their families in a civil lawsuit which was settled out of court in 2010, said the pardons are “a slap in the face” for the victims.
“Up until two days ago we had done the right thing for the people in Iraq who were victims of these shootings,” Dickinson told Al Jazeera.
“All the time and effort that the FBI and the federal prosecutors put into this has been wiped out,” he said.
“These victims have been slapped in the face because the United States government told them that we were going to fight for them, that we were going to hold people accountable for the crimes that they committed.”
Dickinson said Blackwater contractors routinely did not follow the rules of engagement in Iraq, shooting indiscriminately into cars and buildings and frequently disrespecting locals. For many Iraqis, it was difficult to differentiate between the US army and private contractors.
‘Dealt justice a blow’
Ali al-Bayati, a member of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission, said the pardons are hurtful to the Iraqi victims who believed in the US justice system and have undermined the US’s standing in a protracted conflict.
“The world looks to 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 has used his authority and power in a wrongful way,” he said, adding that the pardons “dealt justice a blow” and harmed “the reputation of the United States” both in Iraq and abroad.
Trump’s Blackwater decision is part of a string of pardons of allies and loyalists issued during his final weeks in office. In the past week, he has pardoned nearly 50 people.
Al-Bayati 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 incoming president will change the behaviour of the United States in front of the international community and Iraq, because these actions have deeply hurt Iraq,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Blackwater pardons continue to reverberate among civil and human rights advocates in the US, who say they illustrate Trump’s disregard for the rule of law.
“President Trump’s decision to pardon four mass murderers shows just how little respect he has for both 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 were convicted of perpetrating one of the most infamous war crimes of the American occupation of Iraq,” Awad said. “Pardoning them is an unconscionable act of moral insanity.”