In a highly unusual decision sure to open old wounds among Iraqis and further prolong an already protracted legal saga, a US appeals court has thrown out the murder conviction of an ex-Blackwater security guard and ordered three co-defendants to be resentenced for their roles in the deadliest incident involving the controversial private security firm to date. The men were responsible for the September 16, 2007 Nisour Square shooting in Baghdad, which killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others, and threatened to inflame tensions at the height of what was an already bloody and volatile coalition occupation.
On Friday afternoon a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said that Nicholas Slatten should be given a new trial which would allow for fresh testimony concerning his 2014 first-degree murder conviction. Among the four ex-Blackwater employees sentenced in the 2014 trial, Slatten was the only one convicted of murder as it was believed that he fired on the unarmed civilians first. The other three men - Evan Liberty, Paul Slough, and Dustin Heard - were each given 30-years for manslaughter and other related charges (Slatten had been given a life sentence). Friday's decision also directed that the three men be given new sentences because it deemed the previous 30-year sentences to constitute "cruel and unusual punishment." However, Iraqi family members of the slain (who in some instances lost children) are sure to disagree.
The event received broad international media attention at the time as Blackwater already had a reputation for heavy-handed and trigger happy tactics, and for being "above the law" as a private mercenary firm while operating in Iraq.
The firm, run by former Navy Seal Erik Prince - himself a shadowy figure subject of federal investigations and civil lawsuits - went through multiple name changes after what was dubbed the 'Nisour Square Massacre'. Prince's company is currently called Academi and has been awarded hundreds of millions in contracts by the Pentagon, the CIA, and foreign governments since its 1997 founding.
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill authored the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army and produced this documentary exploring the Nisour Square Massacre:
Friday's appeals court decision hinged on the issue that the 2014 case found that Nicholas Slatten had fired first, which prompted the other Blackwater contractors in the four vehicle armored convoy to assume they were coming under attack. At the time the group was clearing a path as a US diplomatic escort (one of Blackwater's primary roles in Iraq was protection of high level officials working out of Baghdad's 'Green Zone') and upon entering the heavily congested Nisour Square opened fire with heavy machine guns and grenade launchers indiscriminately killing men, women, and children. Numerous complaints had already plagued Blackwater in Iraq up to that point for their brazen disregard for Iraqis on roadways.
Slatten's murder conviction was specifically for the first shooting death of a man in a white Kia which had stopped at the traffic circle and threatened to block the convoy's movement. This had marked the beginning of the drawn out bloody and chaotic incident wherein the convoy expended hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The appeals court concluded:
The government's case against Slatten hinged on his having fired the first shots, his animosity toward the Iraqis having led him to target the white Kia unprovoked.
The prior 2014 case tried the four defendants together, which meant that Slatten could not enter evidence based on testimony from his co-defendants. Friday's decision allows for him to be retried separately in order to allow his colleagues to testify in his defense . While the specific co-defendant remains unnamed, the court acknowledged a previous statement issued by one of the three charged with manslaughter that it was he and not Slatten that was first to "engage and hit the driver."
Source: Defense One, based on official DoD numbers.
The 2014 convictions were met with mixed reactions in Iraq at the time. Friday's ruling came down while it was night in Iraq, and it is likely to spark major protests in Baghdad as the news breaks over the weekend. Even after the US formally and "officially" pulled out of Iraq in December 2011 (though counter-terrorism personnel later advised anti-ISIL missions), tens of thousands of private US contractors remained.