A federal prosecutor last week chronicled for a federal jury the alleged death and destruction committed by four Blackwater security guards accused of killing 14 Iraqis and wounding 18 others in Baghdad seven years ago.
In opening statements at the trial of the guards, Assistant U.S. Attorney T. Patrick Martin said some of the victims were “simply trying to [escape]” the gunfire, “14 Died, 18 injured. For what?”
Prosecutors contend that the Blackwater guards harbored deep hostility toward the Iraqi people and boasted about indiscriminate firing of their weapons. Immediately after the Nisoor Square shootings on September 16, 2007, as soon as the guards got back to base, they lied, according to the prosecutor, and said that there were insurgents in the area.
“That lie that they had begun that day would unravel…” because 2 veteran Army officers showed up to investigate.
It took 4 days for the U.S. State Department, who contracted the private security firm to participate in the Iraq War mostly protecting diplomats, to arrive at the scene. The investigation was pathetic, haphazard, and “bent on clearing the contractors.”
Nicholas Slatten is accused of 1st degree murder. Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard are accused of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and gun charges. The prosecutor told the jury that in the aftermath of the bloodshed, Liberty slapped the backs of his men like it was a sporting event.
During his opening statement, the prosecution displayed graphic photos and video of the scene in the Iraqi capital, including Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y who was shot in the head. Slatten is accused of killing Rubia’y. They say that Slatten stated previous to the shootings that he “wanted to kill as many Iraqis as he could as payback for 9/11”. The prosecution contends that what set off the shootings was Slatten who shot the driver of a white Kia sedan stopped in traffic. When the man, who was shot in the head, died, his car rolled forward and all four defendants, allegedly, opened fire at the vehicle. They then turned their weapons on other civilian vehicles continuing to shoot at them even as they fled, according to the prosecution.
The defense is focusing on self-defense and state of mind during war. In their opening statement, they alleged that the witnesses against the four defendants have been compromised by Iraqi law enforcement. The defense has no witnesses to say that self-defense occurred. The consistent explanation of the 2007 shootings is that there was no incoming fire from those killed. The defense, in opening statements, contends that there is evidence of incoming gunfire. Shell casings from AK-47s were found in three locations near the traffic circle and there were multiple bullet holes in one of the convoy vehicles. Radio logs also reflect that Blackwater called in possible incoming gunfire.
“The defendants’ states of mind both their subjective beliefs…the objective grounds for those beliefs will be central issues…” the defense said in court filings.
The Nisoor Square shooting is the darkest episode of contractor violence during the entire Iraq War and caused anti-American sentiment around the world. The trial which began last week could feature the largest group of foreign witnesses ever to travel to a U.S. criminal trial. The shooting contributed to the Iraqi government’s decision to force the private security force out of the country and the reason why Blackwater’s founder changed the name and sold the company. Slatten could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted. The other three face a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years if convicted.
The first witness to testify in the trial was Mohammad Kinani Al-Razzaq, whose 9-year-old son was killed during the shootings. Under cross-examination, Kinani recalled that Iraqi law enforcement ran a TV ad asking for tips about the shootings. Kinani said he responded to the ad and met with Colonel Faris Karim. There were others at the meeting who said they had been at the square. An American Army Officer instructed the witnesses not to share any of their information. Kinani went on to say that Col. Farim told the witnesses that there were no shots fired at the Blackwater convoy. The defense contends that this amounts to improper influencing of witnesses. Kinani also recalled Col. Faris telling him that Blackwater was telling lies about the incident including that a car bomb went off causing the shooting and that Iraqi police had opened fire on Blackwater vehicles.
Kinani, who lives in Michigan, testified that in 2012, Col. Faris called him and told him that Blackwater may offer him money not to testify. He also asked him how much it would take for him not to testify, but never offered him any money. “He was just throwing questions at me and wanted to see…my reaction…” Kinani reported the call to the FBI, “I was worried that Blackwater had tricks up its sleeves.” No one from Blackwater contacted him offering him money.
All four defendants, former members of the Blackwater team called Raven 23, have pled not guilty. A fifth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, pled guilty to the shootings and will testify against the others.
The case will hinge on whether the jury believes that Blackwater guards acted in self-defense when they opened fire on vehicles driving at a busy intersection just outside the U.S. Green Zone. The guards were part of a larger contingent providing security that day to U.S. State Department employees. Around noon, a car bomb exploded near a U.S. official being protected by Blackwater guards. The unit facing charges left the U.S.-controlled zone to secure a safe route for the official. They stopped in Nisoor Square.