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22 Oct, 2014 16:15

Blackwater guards convicted in 2007 Baghdad shooting

Blackwater guards convicted  in 2007 Baghdad shooting

A Washington, DC jury has convicted one former Blackwater guard of murder and three more from the private military company of voluntary manslaughter in connection with infamous 2007 shooting in Baghdad that left 14 civilians dead and 17 others injured.

The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for 27 days before convicting Nicholas A. Slatten, of Sparta, Tennessee., of first-degree murder. The panel also convicted Paul A. Slough of Keller, Texas of 13 counts of manslaughter and 16 counts of attempted manslaughter; Evan S. Liberty of Rochester, New Hampshire of eight counts of manslaughter and 12 counts of attempted manslaughter; and Dustin L. Heard of Knoxville, Tenn. of six counts of manslaughter and 11 counts of attempted manslaughter, the Washington Post reported. Slough, Liberty and Heard were also convicted of using military firearms while committing a felony.

Former Blackwater Worldwide security guards Donald Ball (2nd L) and Dustin Heard (R) leave the federal courthouse with their legal team after being arraigned (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The jurors are still deliberating on more charges, as US District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth allowed the jury to announce only those verdicts they had agreed upon so far, the Associated Press noted.

The four former Blackwater Worldwide employees faced a combined 33 counts of federal homicide and firearm charges for the firing machine guns and grenades into a Baghdad traffic circle. They have been found guilty on at least some of the charges, according to the Post.

David Schertler, who represents Heard, called the verdict “incomprehensible.”

“The verdict is wrong,” he said. “We’re devastated. We’re going to fight this every step of the way,” according to the Post.

During the 10-week trial, federal prosecutors argued that the defendants opened fire without provocation, firing wildly into the crowded area because they harbored deep-rooted hostility towards Iraqis. The government also claimed the guards later boasted of their indiscriminate shooting.

The 2007 shooting, which happened at Nisur Square in Baghdad, scandalized the Iraqi public and raised tensions with the US four years into the Iraq war. The guards were accompanying a State Department convoy through the streets of Baghdad when they opened fire at a traffic roundabout. The Blackwater troops reportedly faced no provocation, yet they opened fire on a mother and her son in a white Kia vehicle and then continued to fire indiscriminately.

A man who was wounded in a shooting attack by the security guards of Blackwater firm on Sunday, is helped by his relatives in a hospital in Baghdad (Reuters//Ceerwan Aziz)

The men, who were formerly employed by the Blackwater private security company that policed US diplomatic locations in Iraq, claimed their lives were in danger and they acted in self-defense. However, Assistant US Attorney Patrick Martin said during the trial that some of the victims were simply trying to escape the gunfire of the Blackwater guards.

Martin showed graphic photos of the incident and videos of the scene in the Iraqi capital to the court. He said that the guards who opened fire had shown no remorse for their actions, and bragged about their exploits once they were back at base camp. One was "high-fiving and slapping people on back as if he had just won a big football game," Martin told the jury.

In July, defense lawyers claimed the US government suppressed evidence that could aid the defendants. They said that photographs of eight empty shell casings for an AK-47, used by both insurgents and Iraqi security forces, taken by a US Army captain were only supplied by federal prosecutors long after the trial began.

"The government has suppressed, for seven years, evidence in its possession that is plainly exculpatory on the central disputed issue" in the case, defense lawyers argued in a court filing, according to AP.

"Had they possessed these photos, defendants would have made them a central focus during opening statements as evidence of incoming fire. Defendants also would have used this evidence to cross-examine at least four witnesses who have already testified" and who are not liable for a recall to testify, as they have returned to Iraq.

Former Blackwater Worldwide security guard Nick Slatten (C) and attorneys after he was arraigned (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst/Files)

Defense lawyers pressed their argument that other Blackwater guards ‒ not Slatten ‒ fired the first shots at a stopped white Kia sedan, and that they did so only after the vehicle moved slowly toward the convoy, posing what appeared to be a threat to the Blackwater guards' safety, AP reported.

Prosecutors said that, from a vantage point inside his convoy's command vehicle, Slatten aimed his SR-25 sniper rifle through a gun portal, killing the driver, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia'y.

One of the government witnesses in the case, Blackwater guard Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty to killing the driver's mother, who died in the passenger seat of the car next to her son.

The maximum sentence for conviction of first-degree murder is life imprisonment. The gun charges carry mandatory minimum prison terms of 30 years. The maximum prison term for involuntary manslaughter is eight years; for attempted manslaughter it is seven years.