US. U.S. Four former government contractors convicted of a 2007 Baghdad massacre that killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians and caused international outrage about the use of private security services in a war zone have been pardoned by President Donald Trump.
Supporters of former Blackwater Worldwide contractors had campaigned for the pardons, alleging that in an inquiry and trial, the men had been overly disciplined that they said was faulty.
Both four served long jail terms.
The lawyer for one of the four pardoned prisoners, Brian Heberlig, said, “Paul Slough and his colleagues didn’t deserve to spend even a minute in jail.”
“I am overwhelmed with emotion at this fantastic news.”
The pardons released in the final days of Mr. Trump’s single term show his clear willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to American military forces and contractors when it comes to acts of aggression against civilians in war zones.
He pardoned a former U.S. Army officer awaiting trial the following year last November for killing a suspected Afghan bomb maker and a former Army lieutenant accused of murder for ordering three Afghans to be shot by his men.
After the killings in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in September 2007, when the men – former soldiers who served as contractors for the U.S. State Department – opened fire on the crowded traffic circle, the Blackwater case has followed a complex course.
Prosecutors alleged that an unprovoked assault with snipers, machine guns and grenade launchers was launched by the heavily armed Blackwater convoy.
Defense lawyers argued that their clients, after being ambushed by Iraqi rebels, returned fire.
After a trial in Washington federal court, they were convicted in 2014, and each man asserted his innocence at a sentencing hearing the next year.
Slough told the court, “I feel completely betrayed by the same government that I served honorably,”
Slough and two others, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, were sentenced to 30 years in jail, but they each received much reduced sentences after a federal appeals court ordered resentencing.
Nicholas Slatten, a fourth man who was suspected by prosecutors of initiating the firefight, was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Slatten’s first-degree murder conviction was eventually dismissed by a federal appeals court, but the Justice Department retried him and secured another life term last year.
David Schertler, Heard’s attorney, said they were excited and thankful for the pardon.
We still believed in the innocence of Dustin and never gave up fighting for his recovery. He honourably served his country, and today he finally has his well-deserved freedom.
Liberty lawyer Bill Coffield said, “These are four innocent guys and it’s completely justified.”
Nevertheless, the American Civil Liberties Union condemned the pardons.
The shootings triggered “devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States, and a global scandal,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the organization’s National Security Project. President Trump undermines the memory of Iraqi victims and, with this action, degrades his office further.
The trial came years after an original indictment against the men was dropped after a judge found that a grand jury had withheld proof from the Justice Department and violated the civil rights of the guards.
Many Iraqis were outraged by the dismissal, claiming that it meant Americans were putting themselves above the law.
Joe Biden, who spoke in Baghdad in 2010 as vice president, expressed “personal regret” for the shootings and said the U.S. would appeal the court ruling. The case was later revived by the Department of Justice.
At that time, Blackwater contractors were infamous in Baghdad and were frequently suspected of firing shots on the slightest pretext, including clearing a traffic road. The shooting of the traffic circle stood out for the number of casualties, but at that time it was far from an isolated incident in Iraq.
Armed militants opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq have also used vehicle bombs in traffic alongside Western and Iraqi motorcades, demonstrating the pervasive armed presence in Iraq.