A US jury has found Blackwater guards guilty in the 2007 shootings of 31 Iraqis, which left at least 14 dead. The massacre caused an international uproar over the role of private defense contractors in urban warfare.
On Wednesday, the jury in Washington, DC, found Nicholas Slatten guilty of first-degree murder, and Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard guilty of at least three counts of voluntary manslaughter for the massacre on September 16, 2007. The men faced charges on 33 counts in the shootings, which left at least 14 dead and 17 wounded.
The jury reached verdicts on part of the charges after nearly a month of deliberations. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth allowed the jurors to announce the verdicts agreed upon, with the expectation that they would continue deliberating on the other counts.
The State Department hired Blackwater to protect US diplomats in Iraq. Convoys of heavily armored Blackwater vehicles had operated in risky environments, with car bombs and other attacks common.
The US continued to contract with Blackwater after the massacre
Prosecutors charged Slatten, who fired the shot that killed the first civilian, with first-degree murder and the others with voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and gun infractions. Though sentencing will come later, Slatten faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The gun charges carry mandatory minimum prison terms of 30 years. Involuntary manslaughter has a maximum sentence of eight years; for attempted manslaughter, seven years.
Before the killings, Slatten had allegedly told acquaintances that he wanted to "kill as many Iraqis as he could as 'payback for 9/11'," according to court documents.
'Bloodied, bullet-riddled corpses'
The defendants' attorneys had cited apparent evidence that militants and even Iraqi police had targeted the guards with gunfire, leading the private contractors to shoot back in self-defense. However, federal prosecutors said that no one had shot at the guards, who merely opened fire on the crowd unprovoked.
"People who could laugh, who could love, were turned into bloodied, bullet-riddled corpses, people who were not legitimate targets … who were no real threat," federal prosecutor Anthony Asuncion said. The crowd faced "gunfire coming from the left, gunfire coming from the right," Asuncion added.
Blackwater officials renamed the private contractor Xe Services in 2009 and then Academi in 2011. When US President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the State Department finally canceled its contract with the firm.
In 2008, a German weapons manufacturer stopped selling weapons to Blackwater after media reported on the dealings. Disclosures by WikiLeaks in 2010 showed that Blackwater had killed civilians in other incidents. Later that year, then-President Hamid Karzai banned such firms from operating in Afghanistan.
mkg/sb (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)