Federal judge: Blackwater guards can be charged again

US Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled Jan. 19 that charges may be brought again against six individuals accused of massacring 17 people in Nisur Square, Baghdad, in 2007 while working for Blackwater Worldwide. The decision comes two weeks after a previous indictment was dismissed without prejudice.

After the incident, the men were interviewed by State Department investigators, and forced to give written statements under threat of job loss. The State Department then leaked the statements to the news media, tainting most of the witnesses in the case, and complicating efforts to bring criminal charges against the men. After two grand jury hearings, the prosecution was still unable to present a case based entirely on witnesses who were not exposed to the State Department leaks.

Although the case is still a problematic one, there is no legal impediment to starting all over. If the prosecutors can find witnesses not exposed to the statements, and procure an indictment based on them, the case should not be hard to prove. Although some of the witnesses seem to be confusing their own memories with what they have read in the news, they should still be allowed to testify at trial. It is only the indictment which must be taint-free.

The Iraqi government reacted with outrage when Judge Urbina dismissed the tainted indictment two weeks ago, perhaps not understanding that it amounted to a procedural delay. There was even some speculation that the men could be charged with murder in Iraq and prosecuted there. Although Paul Bremer’s Order #17 immunized contractors from Iraqi legal process, a provision in the order allows the US to waive this immunity. To date, however, the Iraqi government has made no diplomatic request of the US to waive the immunity in this case.

The Iraqi government also reacted angrily to a settlement reached in one of two civil cases brought by victims of the incident. As we reported, this case, filed in Virginia, was lost when victims’ lawyers tried to sue Blackwater’s owner, Eric Price, personally, rather than the corporation. When the judge ruled that this meant they would have to show that Prince intended the incident occur, the lawyers apparently realized they had lost, and tried to get what they could out of the case. Twice now, their clients agreed to a fairly low settlement, and then changed their minds. Now the Iraqi government is promising to help them by filing a new lawsuit in the US. A meeting was called in Baghdad, and a law firm appointed by the Iraqi government obtained power of representation over some 50 individuals.

We predict that this effort will be unsuccessful, and potentially harmful to the victims whose cases were filed in a second lawsuit in North Carolina, which is still unresolved. The better course of action for the Iraqi government would be to request a waiver of immunity under Order 17, and the extradition of the suspects to Iraq. Iraq can also ban Blackwater from the country and deny visas to anyone who has ever worked for them. These efforts would be far more productive than trying to intervene in the
US legal process.

Paul Wolf for World War4 Report

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  1. Federal appeals court reinstates case against Blackwater guards
    The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on April 22 reinstated a case against four former Blackwater employees involved in the September 2007 shootings of 17 Iraqi civilians. The Department of Justice dismissed the charges against a fifth ex-Blackwater employee. The charges against the remaining men include 14 counts of manslaughter. The US District Court for the District of Columbia initially dismissed the charges because it found the decision to prosecute the men was “tainted” by the use of immunized statements. The appeals court found that the lower court’s determination was based upon “an erroneous view of the law” and ruled:

    We thus vacate and remand the case for the court to determine, as to each defendant, what evidence—if any—the government presented against him that was tainted as to him, and, in the case of any such presentation, whether in light of the entire record the government had shown it to have been harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
    A victim wounded in the shooting praised [AP report] the court of appeals’ decision.

    From Jurist, April 22. Used with permission.