The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday brought fresh charges against four former Blackwater Worldwide security contractors, resurrecting an internationally charged case over a deadly 2007 shooting on the streets of Baghdad.
A new jury indictment charges the men in a shooting that inflamed anti-American sentiment in Iraq and heightened diplomatic sensitivities amid an ongoing war. The men were hired to guard U.S. diplomats.
The guards are accused of opening fire in busy Nisoor Square on Sept. 16, 2007. Seventeen Iraqi civilians died, including women and children. Prosecutors say the heavily armed Blackwater convoy used machine guns and grenades in an unprovoked attack. Defense lawyers argue their clients are innocent men who were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents.
The guards were charged with manslaughter and weapons violations in 2008, but a federal judge the following year dismissed the case, ruling the Justice Department withheld evidence from a grand jury and violated the guards’ constitutional rights. The dismissal outraged many Iraqis, who said it showed Americans consider themselves above the law. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking in Baghdad in 2010, expressed his “personal regret” for the shootings.
A federal appeals court reinstated the case in 2011, saying now-retired Judge Ricardo Urbina had wrongly interpreted the law.
Prosecutors again presented evidence before a grand jury, and U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth gave the Justice Department until Monday to decide what to do with the case.
The defendants include Dustin Heard, a retired U.S. Marine; Evan Liberty, a retired U.S. Marine ; Nick Slatten, a former U.S. Army sergeant and Paul Slough, a U.S. Army veteran.
Slatten is charged with 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 16 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter; Liberty and Heard are charged with 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 16 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter; and Slough is charged with 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 18 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter. All four were also charged with one count of using and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
They were charged under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, a statute that allows the government to prosecute certain government employees and contractors for crimes committed overseas. Defense lawyers have argued that statute does not apply in this case since the guards were working as State Department contractors, not for the military.
Heard’s lawyer, David Schertler, said in an email he was disappointed with the prosecution, which he believes has no merit.
“We will continue to fight and defend Dustin Heard’s innocence and honor until he is fully exonerated,” he said.
Lawyers for Slough and Slatten declined to comment. Liberty’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said the prosecution “demonstrates our commitment to upholding the rule of law even in times of war and to bringing justice to the memories of those innocent men, women and children who were gunned down in Baghdad more than six years ago.”
Prosecutors last month agreed to dismiss their case against a fifth guard, Donald Ball, a retired Marine. A sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
The Justice Department had earlier dropped Slatten from the case, but after the appeals court decision reinstated the prosecution, the government said he remained a defendant.
In moving forward with the case, the government will seek to overcome some of the legal problems that have dogged the prosecution. The case ran into trouble because the State Department promised the guards that their statements explaining what happened would not be used for criminal prosecution. The guards told investigators that they fired their weapons, a crucial admission. Because of a limited immunity deal, prosecutors had to build their case without those statements, a high legal hurdle. In dismissing the case, Urbina said prosecutors had read the statements, reviewed them in the investigation and used them to question witnesses and get search warrants.
Court documents also reveal conflicting evidence, with some witnesses saying the Blackwater convoy was under fire and others saying it was not.