The Cable

Four Blackwater Guards Convicted of Killing 14 Unarmed Iraqis

This story has been updated. A day after a federal jury convicted four former Blackwater private security contractors on murder and manslaughter charges, Blackwater founder Erik Prince backed away from his previous insistence that the men had done nothing wrong during a Sept. 16, 2007, rampage in Baghdad in which 14 Iraqi civilians died. "I ...

WISSAM AL-OKAILI/AFP/Getty Images
WISSAM AL-OKAILI/AFP/Getty Images

This story has been updated.

A day after a federal jury convicted four former Blackwater private security contractors on murder and manslaughter charges, Blackwater founder Erik Prince backed away from his previous insistence that the men had done nothing wrong during a Sept. 16, 2007, rampage in Baghdad in which 14 Iraqi civilians died.

"I wasn’t there," Prince told Foreign Policy in a phone interview, referring to the incident in which Blackwater employees abruptly began firing machine guns and throwing grenades at unarmed Iraqis in a busy traffic circle, killing 14 civilians and wounding at least 17 more. "I wish that we had cameras that we had asked for — that would have taken the ‘he said, she said’ versions out of there, you know."

This was a far cry from Prince’s testimony before Congress on Oct. 2, 2007, just weeks after the incident, in which he said that "based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on Sept. 16."

The jury’s conviction on Wednesday of Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard came more than seven years after the shootings in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, which severely strained relations between Baghdad and Washington. During the trial, the men’s lawyers maintained they were responding to gunfire at the busy traffic circle and had acted in self-defense, while the prosecution said the shootings were unprovoked. Jurors in Washington sided with the government, convicting Slatten of first-degree murder, a charge that carries a life sentence, and the three others of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and using military firearms while committing a felony, which means they each face a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison. All four men are military veterans.

Prince said that the men "have a lot of avenues for appeals, and I don’t think the last chapter’s written on this yet." Noting that he didn’t attend the trial and hadn’t heard all the evidence, he added, "I’m hopeful that the guys can exercise all their legal options."

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., whose office prosecuted the case, said in a statement Wednesday that the verdict was "a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war. Seven years ago, these Blackwater contractors unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers on innocent men, women, and children. Today they were held accountable for that outrageous attack and its devastating consequences for so many Iraqi families."

The verdict was a long time coming. The government first filed charges in 2008 against six Blackwater employees involved in the shooting, but they were dismissed in 2009 by a federal judge who said prosecutors had built their case on testimony the guards had only given because they believed it would not be used in court. An appeals court reversed that ruling in 2011, paving the way for the current case. Another former defendant, who pled guilty to manslaughter in 2008, testified as a witness in the current trial. Charges against the sixth man were dropped in 2013.

Over the trial’s 10 weeks, the court heard evidence from more than 70 witnesses, including 30 from Iraq, the largest number of foreign witnesses ever brought to the United States for a criminal trial, according to the Justice Department.

Wednesday’s decision involves the majority of the counts against the four, although the jury has yet to rule on a few remaining counts due to a procedural challenge from the defense.

Evan Liberty’s defense attorney, William Coffield, said he was "very surprised" by the jury’s ruling and planned to challenge it. "The verdict really doesn’t make sense given the evidence," he told Foreign Policy. During the trial, the defense lawyers, citing statements by the guards after the incident, said the men fired after seeing a white Kia suddenly take off through stalled traffic in what they thought was an impending car bomb attack.

In their appeal, the defense lawyers plan to reiterate their argument that the court has no jurisdiction to try the case under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act because Blackwater was contracted for the guards’ assignment by the State Department rather than the Pentagon. Blackwater changed its name to Xe in 2009 and was reconstituted as Academi in 2011 in an attempt to shake the company’s negative associations. Prince, meanwhile, has gone on to offer strategy for hired guns in Somalia and the United Arab Emirates and recently proposed sending private contractors back to Iraq to fight the Islamic State.

On Thursday, Prince told Foreign Policy that the case had become "highly politicized." Mentioning an October 2013 car chase in Washington in which police officers shot and killed an unarmed woman with a baby in the backseat of her car, Prince said there would have been a lot more "hue and cry" if private security contractors had been involved. The police officers, moreover, were working in Washington, not Baghdad, a city wracked by constant violence and bloodshed. In Washington, "There was no car bombing, there was no shooting, there was no automatic weapon fire, and yet an innocent woman was gunned down in cold blood," Prince said.

Prince said he didn’t remember ever meeting the four men convicted on Wednesday. "I might have run into them," he said. "There’d be, you know, 300 guys standing in front of me if I came to talk to them at Christmas or some company update meeting."

Journalist Jeremy Scahill, who published a book documenting Blackwater’s rise in 2007, blasted Prince on Wednesday for remaining unpunished while his former employees faced the law. "Just as with the systematic torture at Abu Ghraib, it is only the low level foot-soldiers of Blackwater that are being held accountable. Prince and other top Blackwater executives continue to reap profits from the mercenary and private intelligence industries," he wrote.

Callie Wang, a public relations manager for Academi, said via email that the company was "relieved that the justice system has completed its investigation into a tragedy that occurred at Nisour Square in 2007 and that any wrongdoing that was carried out has been addressed by our courts. The security industry has evolved drastically since those events, and under the direction of new ownership and leadership, ACADEMI has invested heavily in compliance and ethics programs, training for our employees, and preventative measures to strictly comply with all U.S. and local government laws."

Several civil cases filed by victims injured in the shootings and family members of those killed were settled in 2010, with the company paying compensation to the plaintiffs. The FBI was responsible for investigations in the current case, with support from Iraq’s National Police and Interior Ministry.

Susan Burke, a lawyer who represented plaintiffs in the civil cases, told Foreign Policy that she was "delighted to see that justice has been served" and called defense lawyer Coffield’s statement that the verdict wasn’t supported by the evidence "an absurd allegation."

"I personally interviewed multiple witnesses from that day, and there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence as to what happened, and the wrongdoing on the part of the Blackwater men," she said. "When some of the victims came to the United States to testify, I was in touch with them, and I know that the sad reality is that nothing can bring the dead back. But I know they will be relieved that the men are being punished."

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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