Research Triangle Institute can be sued for deaths of Iraqi civilians

A US federal judge has ruled that the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), a USAID-funded organization providing local governance services in Iraq, can be sued in the United States for the deaths of two Iraqi women killed by their security guards in Baghdad in October of 2007. The judge will also allow the victims’ attorneys discovery on whether the security company, Unity Resources Group, has sufficient business contacts in the United States to be sued in a US court. Whether Unity Resources Group can be sued should be decided within the next few months.

The RTI incident occurred only weeks after the infamous Blackwater massacre in Nisur Square, in which 17 innocent bystanders were killed. The first of two civil lawsuits on behalf of Nisur Square victims ended in a disputed settlement, which, along with a botched criminal prosecution, outraged many in the US and Iraq, and recently led to the ouster from Iraq of all former Blackwater employees. A second civil case, brought by a different group of Nisur Square victims, is still pending in federal court in North Carolina.

Although the RTI case involves a different incident, it presents similar legal issues. It is not as well-known, but in some ways is a more important case. Incidents where only one or two people are killed rarely make the news, but occur with a disturbing frequency. The RTI case may be the first of its kind to go to trial, proving that private military contractors—as well as the people they are protecting—can be held responsible for their actions in a US court.

Judge Shanstrom dismissed claims of war crimes and torture, holding that these acts cannot be committed by private corporations. In practical terms, this limits the legal theories the victims can use, to claims of wrongful death, negligence, assault, and so on. Although this part of the decision was disappointing, the case is now fairly simple, and should encourage other lawyers to bring similar actions on behalf of victims of other unjustified shootings in Iraq.

“We’re looking forward to bringing the case against RTI to trial, and hopeful that their security contractor, Unity Resources Group, can also be held accountable in the United States,” said Paul Wolf, who represents Jalal Askander, the father of the deceased passenger of the car, Genevia Jalal Antranick. “Not only for justice in this case, but to set an example to deter the reckless attitude many contractors have towards the lives of innocent civilians in Iraq.”

The trial itself is at least a year away, but today’s decision marks an important milestone, and should send a warning to corporations working in war zones: they are not above the law. If they kill people, they’d better be prepared to justify their actions in court. Further information about the case can be found at Expose the War Profiteers. (Asesorias Paul press release, Feb. 26)

See our last posts on Iraq and US atrocities.

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  1. Feds indict former Blackwater president
    From AP, April 16:

    RALEIGH, N.C. – The former president of Blackwater Worldwide was charged Friday with using straw purchases to stockpile automatic weapons at the security firm and filing false documents to cover up gifts given to the king of Jordan.

    Gary Jackson, 52, who left the company last year in a management shake-up, was charged along with four of his former colleagues, according to the federal indictment.

  2. Unity Resouces suit dismissed
    Paul Wolf writes, Aug. 12:

    We just got some bad news. The case of Jalal Askander and Marani Awanis Manook was just dismissed, without prejudice, in Federal court in North Carolina. This means we will have sue the defendants, Unity Resources Group and the Research Triangle Institute, in another court. I posted the Opinion here: [PDF]

    The case is about the murder of two women in Baghdad in October of 2007 by private security contractors who killed the women with machine guns when they allegedly ignored a warning to stop their vehicle. Al Jazeera did a nice news clip on case, which is online here:

    The reasons why the case was dismissed are technical. The case was originally filed in Federal court in Washington DC. It was assigned to a judge in Billings, Montana, who dismissed the federal claims of violations of international law, and the torture victim protection act (which encompasses murder), but didn’t dismiss the state law claims for wrongful death and other torts. He then transferred the case to North Carolina, since the Research Triangle Institute is located there.

    The judge in North Carolina held that his court could not hear state law claims brought by one alien (the estate of a non-citizen) against another alien (Unity Resources Group appears to be an Australian company incorporated in Singapore with another office in Dubai).

    We are obviously not happy with this decision, and are evaluating with to appeal, or simply re-file the case in another court. It may be that we have to sue the defendants separately, which is obviously not what we wanted to do. We’ll keep you posted on what happens next.

  3. Blackwater bigwig flees to UAE
    From Press TV, Aug. 18:

    Erik Prince, the founder of the notorious security company Blackwater/Xe, has left the United States and is settling with his family in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

    Prince, 51, personally is not facing any criminal charges for now, but his company, now known as Xe Services LLC, has been implicated in a series of scandals related to its operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, court documents say.

    In documents filed with the Justice Department, the North Carolina-based company is facing multiple lawsuits, including a case in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, alleging that Blackwater/Xe defrauded the US government…

    Five former executives have been indicted on federal firearms charges, and two former contractors are on trial in Norfolk, Virginia, accused of murdering two civilians in Afghanistan in 2009.