In what may become one of the more high-profile events of the Iraq War, the indictment of the five Blackwater contractors in Washington Monday, December 8, may become a critical piece of political maneuvering on the part of the United States. In the end, 14 people, Iraqi citizens, are dead. Another 20 are wounded. The case hangs on the prosecution of Americans with limited forensic evidence and the word of Iraqis against the word of former American soldiers, the Blackwater Guards.
As the world watches…
The Case Against Blackwater
According to the Associated Press, five Blackwater Worldwide guards turned themselves into federal custody in Utah Monday, hoping to be tried in the more conservative state (one of the five men is from Utah) and attempting to avoid the far more liberal Washington venue. A federal ruled that the five men were to report to Washington on January 6 to enter their pleas. A sixth guard has already pleaded guilty to various lesser charges in exchange for his testimony against his former comrades.
Prosecutors read a list of indictments into the record against the contractors that carry mandatory 30-year sentences for 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one count of use of a machine gun in committing a crime of violence. The machine-gun charge alone carries a minimum sentence of 30 years.
The five Blackwater guards – who happen to all be decorated combat veterans – maintain that they did nothing wrong that day in Baghdad, that they were fired upon and merely returned fire, protecting themselves. Defense attorney Paul Cassell says, “We think it’s a pure case of self-defense. Tragically, people did die.”
Those indicted were: Donald Ball, a former U.S. Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, former Marine, Knoxville, Tennessee; Evan Liberty, former Marine, Rochester, New Hampshire; Nick Slatten, former U. S. Army, Sparta, Tennessee; and Paul Slough, Army veteran, of Keller, Texas.
Prosecutors face anything but an easy trial. They are faced with proving their case with insufficient forensic evidential support, evidence that was gathered long after the incident, and the inadmissibility of any statements given the State Department in the initial debriefing after the incident (the State Department extended limited immunity for the statements).
The initial incident happened in July, 2007, in Baghdad, Iraq. Defense attorneys will argue that the prosecution cannot try the men because they were protected State Department employees. But the prosecution argues that on that particular day, the Blackwater contractors were supporting a military mission and their State Department immunity does not apply.
The shootings received worldwide scrutiny and condemnation. The Iraqi government and the families of those slain and wounded have been impatiently calling for action on the part of the U.S. government since the occurrence.
Proving Blackwater Guards Guilty Problematic
That it will be difficult to impanel a jury in the United States that will reach a verdict of guilty against five decorated combat veterans is not doubted. That the defense will be able to present credible scenarios for the actions of the five men that day in Baghdad is also not doubted. What is in doubt is that the men acted recklessly, killing unarmed civilians, including women and children, unprovoked.
But the case has political weight. The world is watching to see Americans will hold their own accountable for what looks to be an unprovoked atrocity and a quick move by the State Department and Blackwater to cover up any wrongdoing, considering that the FBI and local investigators were not given access to evidence, such as the shot-up Blackwater Humvees that received repair with State Department approval, until days later.
And it must not be assumed that simply because the Americans are decorated veterans that they are innocent. There are 20 wounded and hundreds of other witnesses from the Baghdad streets that day that say that the Americans fired into the crowd without provocation.
At the same time, it must not be assumed that the five former American military personnel are guilty. Simply because there are witnesses claiming that the Blackwater guards fired indiscriminately and without being provoked does not necessarily mean that that was indeed the case.
Keeping the trial from looking as if it is part of a greater cover-up might be the most difficult part of the trial. Given the problems facing the prosecution, proving the five men guilty will be slow going.
But they do have the guard who has already pleaded guilty. And it will be upon his sworn testimony that the entire trial will hinge. In exchange for his testimony against his former compatriots, Jeremy Ridgeway pleaded guilty to one charge of manslaughter, one count of attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting.
Politics may have played a larger part in the case than most realize. It has taken months for the indictments to be handed down. The formal transition of power has begun in Baghdad. Thousands of Iraqis are clamoring for justice in the Blackwater case in what most of them see as a clear case of wanton disregard for the Iraqi people, a disregard for Iraqi law and Iraqi government. They are demanding accountability.
The United States, in moving to bring the six men to trial, is showing that it is willing to hold its employees, military and paramilitary contractors, accountable.
In the end, not all will be satisfied, no matter the final verdict. And the actual truth of what happened that deadly day may never be known. But bringing the matter to trial, finding the Blackwater contractors guilty or not guilty is a positive step in reshaping and rebuilding the tarnished aggressor image of the United States.
The trial will be conducted under the eyes of the new Obama administration.
And the eyes of the world…
For an enlightening look into Blackwater Worldwide, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerfful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill is recommended reading.
Blackwater is also give prominent mention in Madeleine Drohan’s Making A Killing:How Corporations Use Armed Force To Do Business and Naomi Wolf’s The End Of America: Letter Of Warning To A Young Patriot.