A federal judge on Monday ordered five employees of Blackwater Worldwide to report to a Washington court in January to face charges related to the deaths of more than a dozen Iraqi civilians on a busy Baghdad street on Sept.16, 2007.
Fourteen Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed in a machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade shooting spree by the hired guards, say federal prosecutors. A further 20 civilians were injured, reports the Associated Press (AP).
The Washington order came hours after prosecutors announced the charges against the men, including one with a mandatory 30-year sentence, and after weeks in which defense attorneys have sought to move the trial to Salt Lake City.
The AP reports that defense lawyers wanted the trial to proceed in Utah, home of one of the men, Donald Ball, "in hopes of appealing to conservative jurors who may be more sympathetic to the war in Iraq than those in Washington."
Donald Ball's big-city lawyers really like Utah.
The hotels and international airport are so convenient. And our uber-patriotic support for the Iraq war and anything-goes gun laws also appeal.
So the Utahphiles figured Ball, one of six disgraced Blackwater guards accused of mowing down a crowd of unarmed Iraqis last year, had a better chance of getting off here than just about anywhere else in America.
But the Justice Department moved to hold the trial in Washington, where one former guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, had already pleaded guilty to lesser charges in a deal with prosecutors, the AP reports. The federal judge in Salt Lake City agreed.
They traveled to Baghdad's Nisoor Square to investigate reports of an improvised explosive device and set up a checkpoint to slow the flow of traffic. Seconds later, the team opened fire on an approaching Kia sedan which "failed to come to a complete stop," the paper reports.
Ridgeway said he and other members of the Blackwater team pumped hundreds of machine-gun rounds into the Kia, killing its occupants, a second-year medical student named Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia'y and his mother, a doctor, who was sitting in the passenger seat.
Minutes later, Ridgeway said, the Blackwater convoy departed Nisoor Square against the flow of traffic, and turret gunners in the convoy "continued to fire their machine guns at civilian vehicles that posed no threat to the convoy."
The five guards face charges of 14 counts of manslaughter, each of which carries a 10-year prison sentence, as well as 20 charges of attempted manslaughter, which each carrying a seven-year sentence, says District of Columbia attorney Jeff Taylor, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Additionally, they face one count of using a machine gun to commit an act of violence, a charge usually used in drug cases, which carries a mandatory 30-year sentence, says the AP.
The move to Washington is a legal setback for the five accused men, who say they acted in self-defense and believed an insurgent attack to be imminent at the time of the shooting. They maintain their innocence on all charges of wrongdoing, according to the AFP.
"What the Department of Justice revealed today is that they don't understand that not every tragedy is a crime ... In Baghdad they fought for their lives, here they will fight for their freedom," said Mark Hulkower, a lawyer representing army veteran Paul Slough. "What happened was a tragedy."
In a statement released on its website, Blackwater USA also defends the innocence of the five accused contractors, saying: "[B]ased on the information available to us, we understand that these individuals acted within the rules set forth for them by the government and that no criminal violations occurred."
The company also says it is "extremely disappointed and surprised" in Ridgeway's plea deal, saying, if his confession of wrongdoing is true that he "gave false information to the company to conceal [his] behavior."
But some say the indictment of five individual contractors does not go far enough, noting that the company itself, the largest US security contractor in Iraq, has not been charged in the case.
Eugene Robinson, an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, calls the indictment "a whitewash," arguing that if Blackwater had provided its employees with proper training they may not have reacted to a perceived security threat by killing women and children.
Where some see the indictments as a chance for the government to hold wrongdoers accountable, Robinson says "It demonstrates nothing of the sort."
As with the torture and humiliation of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, our government is deflecting all scrutiny from the corporate higher-ups who employed the guards – to say nothing of the policymakers whose decisions made the shootings possible, if not inevitable.
Proper training and supervision – which was the Blackwater firm's responsibility – would have made it more likely for the guards to make the right split-second decisions amid the chaos of Nisoor Square. Rather than give Blackwater a free pass, the Justice Department ought to investigate the preparation these men were given before being sent onto Baghdad's dangerous streets....
But a real attempt to establish blame for this massacre should go beyond Blackwater. It was the Bush administration that decided to police the occupation of Iraq largely with private rather than regular troops.