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Picture Credit: The Guardian
Donald Trump has recently pardoned four Blackwater (a private military security company) guards, who were taken into custody for killing 17 Iraqi civilians, including a nine-year-old and an eleven-year-old in Baghdad in 2007. As per an investigation carried out by the FBI, 14 out of those killings were considered unjustified under the norms of the use of lethal force by security firms. This massacre gave rise to a series of protests worldwide against the use of private security companies/mercenaries in war zones.
Blackwater USA began in 1997 by Al Clark and Erik Prince. It started out as a private security firm providing training support to law enforcement, the justice department, and military organizations and received its first contract from the United States government in 2000 after the bombing of the USS Cole.
During the war in Iraq, Blackwater was one of several private security companies which used to guard officials, security guards, and military installations, train the Iraqi army and police forces, and provide other support for armed forces. Their first contact in Iraq was in the summer of 2003 when they secured a $21 million contract for Personal Security Detachment and two helicopters for the head of US occupation in Iraq, Paul Bremer. In 2004, they were one of three private military companies brought in for protective services in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Israel.
By 2006, Blackwater was one of three companies awarded a contract to provide diplomatic security in Iraq. One of their jobs was to protect the US Embassy there. At this time, because it was a privately owned company, little was known about the internal affairs of the business.
Details of the incident
The horrendous details of the shootings unfolded from the Iraqis during the 2014 trials. All four perpetrators - Dustin Heard, Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, and Evan Liberty targeted an unarmed crowd indiscriminately using advanced machine-guns, snipers, and grenade launchers in Nisour Square. The men had been assigned to guard a convoy of four heavily-armored vehicles carrying US Army personnel, who were on their way to the site of a car bomb explosion that had taken place earlier that day during the visit of a US official. At a busy intersection in the affluent neighborhood of Nisour Square, the guards spread out and tried to stop traffic to let the trucks pass. When one fast-approaching car did not slow down for the convoy, a Blackwater guard — who was later identified as sniper Nicholas Slatten — fired at the vehicle. One eyewitness claimed a hand grenade was also flung at the car, causing it to burst into flames. Mayhem ensued as other guards too started “recklessly” shooting innocent people who were trying to escape, eyewitnesses recalled. However, the Blackwater authorities have said that its contractors had merely returned fire after a group of Iraqi insurgents dressed in plainclothes ambushed them at the intersection.
Anything that moved in Nusoor Square was shot. Women, children, young people, they shot everyone", said Hassan Jaber Salman, a lawyer survivor who was ambushed with his son during the course of the trial. According to Blackwater, its convoy was attacked and the witness accounts were fabricated according to defense attorneys. It was testified by the witnesses that without any provocation of any sort, the contractors resorted to firing.
A total of seventy-one witnesses gave their testimonies, inclusive of 30 Iraqis.- the largest ever group of witnesses from abroad to have traveled to the US pertaining to a criminal trial.
The outrage was sparked in Iraq as an aftermath of the massacre, raising pertinent questions related to the accountability of the foreign security personnel in the country, who do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi law as per an order issued from the occupation government at the time, which was US-led.
An Iraqi survivor, who got badly injured in the massacre, has condemned Trump’s decision to pardon the guards and has called it ‘unjust’. A US Military investigation conducted within a month of the Nisour Square incident concluded that Blackwater was responsible for the massacre. Slatten, who was found to be the first to open fire, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. In 2014, the other three — Slough, Liberty, and Heard —were convicted on multiple charges of voluntary and attempted manslaughter and got away with a 30-year jail term each.
However, the US Court of Appeals reversed Slatten’s conviction and ordered for the other three guards to be re-sentenced. In 2019, Slatten was once again found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Meanwhile, the 30-year jail terms of Slough, Liberty, and Heard were judged excessive and reduced to 15, 14, and 12 years, respectively. While prosecutors said the armed convoy had launched an unprovoked attack, the four men argued they were merely returning fire after being ambushed. In a memorandum filed after the sentencing, the US government said none of the victims were identified as insurgents and did not appear to pose a threat to the convoy.
Undermining the humanitarian law
As per the Geneva Conventions, “each state must hold war criminals accountable for their actions” even if they are acting as “private military contractors”, said the UN officials, reminding that all four guards were legally tried and were found guilty.
They also claimed that these pardons would undermine basic human rights and humanitarian law at an international level as well as violate the United State’s credibility under international law.
By Shrey Madan I Sanjukta