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Blackwater Guards Charged With Manslaughter in Shooting Deaths of Iraqis

BY Admin  December 8, 2008 at 3:30 PM EST

Blackwater security guard Nick Slatten, left; AP

A sixth guard involved in the attack reached a plea
deal with prosecutors, turned on his former colleagues, and admitting killing
at least one Iraqi in the shooting in Nisoor Square. Seventeen Iraqis were
killed in the assault, which shook U.S. diplomacy with Iraq and fueled
anti-American sentiment abroad.

The five guards surrendered Monday and were due to
ask a federal judge in Utah for bail.

“None of the victims of this shooting was
armed. None of them was an insurgent,” U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said,
according to the Associated Press. “Many were shot while inside civilian
vehicles that were attempting [to] flee from the convoy. One victim was shot in
the chest while standing in the street with his hands up. Another was injured
from a grenade fired into a nearby girls’ school.”

The officials told a news conference there was no
evidence that any of the other 13 members of the convoy or that Blackwater
itself committed any wrongdoing in the shooting.

The guards were charged with 14 counts of
manslaughter and 20 counts of attempted manslaughter. They are also charged
with using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence, a charge that carries a
30-year minimum prison sentence.

The shootings happened in a crowded square where
prosecutors say civilians were going about their lives and running errands.
Following a car bombing elsewhere in the city, the heavily armed Blackwater
convoy sought to shut down the intersection. Prosecutors said the convoy, known
by the call sign Raven 23, violated an order not to leave the U.S.-controlled
Green Zone.

“The tragic events in Nisoor Square on Sept. 16
of last year were shocking and a violation of basic human rights,” FBI
Assistant Director Joseph Persichini said.

Witnesses alleged the contractors opened fire
unprovoked. Among the victims were women and children. The shooting left the
square littered with blown-out cars. Blackwater, the largest security
contractor in Iraq, says its guards were ambushed and believed a slowly moving
white Kia sedan might have been a car bomb.

“We think it’s pure and simple a case of
self-defense,” defense attorney Paul Cassell said Monday as the guards
were being booked. “Tragically, people did die.”

Prosecutors said the Blackwater guards never even
ordered the car to stop before opening fire. In his plea agreement, former
guard Jeremy Ridgeway, of California, admitted there was no indication the Kia
was a car bomb.

An attorney on the team representing the five men,
who surrendered to authorities in Salt Lake City, Utah, said they were innocent
of all charges.

“They were hired as State Department
contractors to protect State government officials,” Brent Hatch said,
according to Reuters. “They did their job as they were contracted to do,
as they were required to do, and as the State Department asked them to do
it.”

The charges came after more than a year of FBI
investigations in one of the most high-profile cases remaining before President
George W. Bush leaves office in January. The incoming Obama administration will
have to prosecute the case in court.

Though the case has already been assigned to U.S.
District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in Washington, the guards want the case moved to
Utah, where they would presumably find a more conservative jury pool and one
more likely to support the Iraq war.

The indicted guards are Donald Ball, a former Marine
from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, a former Marine from Knoxville,
Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a
former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, an Army veteran from
Keller, Texas.

Ridgeway’s sentencing on manslaughter, attempted
manslaughter and aiding and abetting has not yet been scheduled.

An afternoon court hearing was scheduled on whether
to release the guards. Defense attorneys were filing court documents
challenging the Justice Department’s authority to prosecute the case. The law
is murky on whether contractors can be charged in U.S. courts for crimes
committed overseas.

The shootings caused a diplomatic uproar, and the
fledgling Iraqi government in Baghdad wanted Blackwater, which protects U.S.
State Department personnel, expelled from the country. It also sought the right
to prosecute the men in Iraqi courts.

“The killers must pay for their crime against
innocent civilians. Justice must be achieved so that we can have rest from the
agony we are living in,” Khalid Ibrahim, a 40-year-old electrician who
said his 78-year-old father, Ibrahim Abid, died in the shooting, according to
the AP. “We know that the conviction of the people behind the shooting
will not bring my father to life, but we will have peace in our minds and
hearts.”

Defense attorneys accused the Justice Department of
bowing to Iraqi pressure.

“We are confident that any jury will see this
for what it is: a politically motivated prosecution to appease the Iraqi
government,” said defense attorney Steven McCool, who represents Ball.

Based in Moyock, N.C., Blackwater is the largest
security contractor in Iraq and provides heavily armed guards for diplomats.
Since last year’s shooting, the company has been a flash point in the debate
over how heavily the U.S. relies on contractors in war zones

The company itself was not charged in the case. In a
lengthy statement, Blackwater stood behind the guards and said it was
“extremely disappointed and surprised” that one of the guards had
pleaded guilty.

Troy Ball, brother of suspect Donald Ball, told the
Salt Lake Tribune that he believes his brother is innocent.

“I’m very confident the truth will come out. I
believe he will be totally exonerated of all charges,” the 38-year-old
middle school teacher said.

Donald Ball completed three tours of duty in Iraq
when he decided to return as a guard for Blackwater. He originally joined the
U.S. Marines after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Troy Ball said, to
honor their father after his 1999 death of a heart attack.

“It was his way of making a difference in the
world,” Troy Ball said, calling his brother a hard worker and Eagle Scout
who had a great love for his country.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican on the
Senate Judiciary Committee had no problem with the five men surrendering in
Utah. “The security guards’ decision to surrender to the proper
authorities is the right thing to do regardless of where that takes
place,” he said, according to the Tribune.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that crimes
committed overseas are normally charged in Washington.