Rich Jackson summarises where the infamous Blackwater case is now and, more importantly, how it reflects on the US government and its use of private contractors in war.
Four guards from the private security firm Blackwater have been convicted of shooting 31 unarmed Iraqi civilians.
On September 16, 2007, Blackwater guards parked their armoured vehicles at the crowded intersection at Nisour Square in Baghdad in order to stop traffic to allow trucks to pass. One car, a white Kia sedan, did not come to a stop despite being signaled to do so. Prosecutors at the trial claimed that Blackwater guard Nicholas Slatten using a SR-25 sniper rifle, fired at the driver of the car, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y, via a portal of a command vehicle.
The incident escalated, with shots being fired at numerous cars from machine guns and assault rifles. A grenade launcher was shot by Blackwater, causing a car to explode.
In total 14 Iraqis were killed and 17 wounded. The youngest victim was Ali Kinani, aged nine. Ali’s father Mohammad, who was present in the car with Ali that day, described the firing as, “…random yet still concentrated. It was concentrated and focused on what they aimed at and still random as they shot in all directions.”
He claimed to have witnessed a Blackwater guard on top of a tank shooting a young Iraqi man who had fled his car. The shooter proceeded to then alternate between shooting the body of the young Iraqi man as he lay dead on the pavement before firing at other Iraqis.
The incident almost didn’t come to trial as in the immediate aftermath the State Department had offered Blackwater immunity (something, it turns out, they didn’t have the authority to do) and some reports indicate they even helped to clean up the site, by picking up shell casing. While in 2009 a district court judge dismissed all charges against the five defendants before the Court of Appeals in 2011 overruled the decision.
This trial commenced on June 2014, and was heavily reliant on eyewitnesses, prosecutors calling 72, many of whom were flown from Iraq. A federal jury took 28 days to reach a verdict, finding Slatten guilty of first-degree murder, then Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and gun violations.
Charges against Donald Ball had previously been dropped, while a sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgewell, agreed to a plea bargain – he would testify against his former colleagues and plead guilt to manslaughter in exchange for a shorter sentence. Sentencing is still to be announced, but Slatten faces the maximum penalty of life in prison and the others could face a decades.
The prosecution claimed that the Blackwater guards showed low regard and deep hostility to Iraqi civilians and held “a grave indifference” to the death and injury that their actions would cause Iraqis.
The defence claimed their defendants acted in self defence and that there was evidence they had come under fire from insurgents and Iraqi Police. They have said they will appeal the decision.
The whole event signalled a debate on the use of private contractors in conflict – some might argue that it was Blackwater on trial, and yes it was, but every Blackwater guard on trial was a former US soldier. The American government did not privatise off the violence of Blackwater’s actions that day, but rather they made the decision to allow private contractors to profit from conflict.
This was their country’s reputation on trial here as well.
The role of the State Department in the immediate aftermath is fairly dubious, their first instinct being to protect Blackwater rather than discover what happened by locating actual victims and prosecuting the guilty. They advised Blackwater to offer the victims compensation and even offered Blackwater immunity (which it turns out the didn’t have the authority to do) and some reports allege they even helped to clean up the site by picking up shell casing.
Jeremy Scahill, author of the book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, who has also produced a 30-minute documentary on the event and Ali Kinani, points out in his piece that it merely the “foot soldiers” being prosecuted and held to account rather than authority figures responsible for “creating the conditions”. He cites the head of Blackwater, Erik Prince, who now runs a new security firm, Frontiers Services Group operating in Africa, and receiving contracts from the US State Department, then former President George Bush and Barack Obama, who previously pledged in “reign in mercenary force when he was a senator”. A promise he has not fulfilled.
The 14 victims of the shooting were:
Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y,
Mahassin Mohssen Kadhum Al-Khazali,
Osama Fadhil Abbas,
Ali Mohammed Hafedh Abdul Razzaq,
Mohamed Abbas Mahmoud,
Qasim Mohamed Abbas Mahmoud,
Sa’adi Ali Abbas Alkarkh,
Mushtaq Karim Abd Al-Razzaq,
Ghaniyah Hassan Ali,
Ibrahim Abid Ayash,
Hamoud Sa’eed Abttan,
Uday Ismail Ibrahiem,
Mahdi Sahib Nasir,
Ali Khalil Abdul Hussein.
The Big Smoke will have a follow up when the sentencing is announced.