What's Blackwater massacre? Donald Trump pardons guards behind killings of 17 Iraqi civilians, including children

In September 2007, 17 civilians including children were shot dead by personnel of private military firm Blackwater at Baghdad's Nisour Square


                            What's Blackwater massacre? Donald Trump pardons guards behind killings of 17 Iraqi civilians, including children
(Getty Images)

Survivors and the dear ones of those killed in the Blackwater Massacre of 2007 were left shocked after President Donald Trump pardoned four contractors responsible for the murders. The president on Tuesday, December 22, pardoned four security guards from the private military firm Blackwater who are serving jail terms for gunning down 14 civilians in Iraq in 2007, sparking an outrage internationally over the use of mercenaries for war purposes. The four guards — Paul Slough, Dustin Heard, Nicholas Slatten and Evan Liberty — were part of the convoy that opened indiscriminate fire with lethal weapons on unarmed people in a square in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. 

"My message to US President Trump is to not pardon or release the perpetrators, they are terrorists," Jasim Mohammed Al-Nasrawi, a police officer who was injured in the attack, told CNN. "Anything that moved in Nusoor Square was shot. Women, children, young people, they shot everyone," said Hassan Jaber Salman, a lawyer who survived the attack with his son, during the trial. Survivor Al-Nasrawi said that instead of issuing pardons, "Trump should look into the victims' families and wounded and take care of their health."

The Nisour Square massacre

The tragedy at the Nisour Square happened at a time when the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq was on. The date was September 16, 2007. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was executed less than a year ago. Employees of Blackwater (now called Academi), which was contracted by the US government to provide security services in Iraq, shot at unarmed Iraqi civilians while escorting a US embassy convoy, killing 17 and leaving 20 injured. The deceased included nine and 11-year-old boys. Fourteen of those killings were unjustified under the rules of use of deadly force by security contractors, as per an FBI probe.

The act seriously strained relations between the US and Iraq and in 2014, a US federal jury found the four Blackwater contractors guilty over the slaughter and handed them life terms. The guards had said in their defense that they fired at the Iraqis to save the convoy, which they claimed was ambushed, but the Iraqi government and investigators said the killings were unprovoked.

Blackwater Worldwide’s license to function in Iraq was temporarily revoked in the wake of the massacre with the state department conceding that “innocent life was lost”. According to a report in The Washington Post, military reports appeared to corroborate “the Iraqi government’s contention that Blackwater was at fault”. A US military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Post: “It was obviously excessive. It was obviously wrong.”

The government in Baghdad vowed to penalize Blackwater and as many as five investigations were launched into the incident, including one by the FBI. Its probe found that of the 17 Iraqis who were killed by the guards, at least 14 were shot without a reason

In December 2008, the US charged five Blackwater guards with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and a weapons violation, but in December the next year, a US district judge quashed all charges on grounds that the case against the Blackwater guards had been improperly built on testimony that was given in lieu of immunity. 

Nouri al-Maliki, the then prime minister of Iraq, slammed the dismissal and in April 2011, a US federal court reinstated the manslaughter charges against four — Slough, Heard, Liberty and Donald Ball — after a closed-door testimony. The court said on the occasion: “We find that the district court's findings depend on an erroneous view of the law.” 

While the charge against Ball was later dismissed, a sixth guard pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. In October 2014, a Federal District Court jury convicted Slatten of first-degree murder while Slough, Liberty and Heard were held guilty of three counts of voluntary manslaughter. In April 2015, Slatten got a life sentence while the three other guards were sent to jail for 30 years. 

In August 2017, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned Slatten’s murder conviction and asked the other defendants to be sentenced again. A new trial was also advised for Slatten on grounds that it was not justified to try him with the co-defendants and that he should have been tried separately. In December 2018, Slatten was once again convicted of murder and in August 2019, he was sentenced to life in prison.

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