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Blackwater Guards Cleared of Charges; Prosecution Could Appeal

December 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A federal judge dismissed charges against five Blackwater guards accused of killing seven Iraqis in 2007. Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press speaks with Ray Suarez about the developments.

RAY SUAREZ: In another war development today, a federal judge in Washington has dismissed charges against five guards at the former Blackwater security agency accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

For more on that story, we’re joined by Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press.

And, Matt, let’s begin with the original story. Who were these Blackwater guards working for? What were they doing in Baghdad in 2007?

MATT APUZZO: Well, Blackwater was hired by the State Department to basically guard diplomats. They were security guards. They are bodyguards.

And they — they were in a convoy that was actually responding to a car bombing in September of 2007, when, depending on which side of the story you believe, they were either ambushed by insurgents in Nisoor Square, or they unleashed an unprovoked attack on civilians in Nisoor Square.

Regardless of which story you believe, 17 Iraqis are dead. And — and this has obviously really touched off some anti-American sentiment abroad.

RAY SUAREZ: At the time, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the case, a kind of tussle between Iraq and the United States over who would try them. What did the United States assure the Iraqis to get these men back to the United States?

MATT APUZZO: Well, the government wasn’t going to allow — the United States government was not going to allow these men to be tried in Iraq. I think there was a feeling that that would have set a really dangerous precedent for military personnel and U.S. contractors working in war zones.

So, the case was brought to Washington. It was kind of an unprecedented case, bringing — bringing U.S. contractors to Washington for a trial for a crime allegedly committed in a war zone.

And Baghdad, people in Iraq, have really wanted to know, how is this going to play out? How is the U.S. judicial system going to handle this case? Are we going to get justice?

RAY SUAREZ: So, Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled today. What did he say? What was the essence of the ruling? And what reasons did he give for it?

MATT APUZZO: Well, he threw out the entire case. He dismissed the indictment against all five men.

And the reason was, he basically said that prosecutors crossed the line and they mishandled evidence. What happened is, after the shooting, the State Department came in and said to the contractors, we want to know what happened. Tell us what happened.

And, as part of — as part of their contract, they have to tell the State Department. But that is a — in legal terms, a coerced statement. They’re required to give it. And, so, as part of the deal, you give us a statement about what happens. We will use it for our internal investigation, and we won’t use those statements in any criminal prosecution.

But what happened was, those statements were used in the criminal case. They were used to underpin search warrants. They were used to question witnesses. The prosecutors read them. Some of the information made its way to the grand jury. And the judge just said, it — it had so tainted the case, that there was no choice but to throw it out.

RAY SUAREZ: So, is this it? Does the government get another bite at the apple, a way to take another run at this? Or are these men now out of any legal danger?

MATT APUZZO: Well, the government can appeal. I mean, there is a legal argument to be made that, you know, maybe the — the State Department doesn’t have the authority to give blanket immunity protection to these guards. But, at this point, the hurdle — there is a really high hurdle for the Justice Department to clear to make this case come back to life.

This is a big win for the security guards. And — and they had felt like they were going to be able to prove their innocence at trial, regardless of the evidentiary issues. They felt like this was a legitimate firefight. This was — they were acting in self-defense.

But, at this point, we will never know. It appears we will never know whether this was a — self-defense, whether they were ambushed, or whether this was a massacre.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this case being followed closely back in Iraq, now two years later?

MATT APUZZO: Well, you know, when — when the indictment came down, people in Iraq were — were talking about — about the death penalty.

Sort of, you know, to many people in Iraq, this is sort of the hallmark, this is the signature moment for you know, the U.S. — U.S. contractors slaughtering innocent civilians. So, you know, it — because of the time zone, we don’t have any reaction yet out of Baghdad.

But you can be sure that this is being watched very closely there. And it will be very interesting to see how it’s — how this is taken, both by the government in Baghdad, and — and sort of, you know, the average Iraqi on the street.

RAY SUAREZ: Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press, thanks for joining us.

MATT APUZZO: Hey, thanks a lot.