A federal court ordered a new trial for Nicholas Slatten in the 2007 massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqis in Nissour Square, Iraq
JAISAL NOOR: A federal appeals court on Friday (August 4) threw out the murder conviction of an ex-Blackwater security guard and ordered three of his former colleagues to be re-sentenced in the high-profile prosecution stemming from the massacre of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered a new trial after tossing out the murder conviction of former security contractor Nicholas Slatten. The three-judge panel said Slatten should have had a separate trial instead of being tried alongside his former colleagues. At a new trial, Slatten would be able to introduce evidence that one of his co-defendants had fired the first shot. Separately, the court said Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty, who were all convicted of manslaughter and other offenses over their respective roles in the incident, should be re-sentenced because their 30-year prison terms were too long. The court also threw out one of Liberty’s convictions for attempted manslaughter. The Justice Department declined to comment. Lawyers for the defendants could not immediately be reached. The Sept. 16, 2007, incident stood out for its brutality even in a city in a grip of a bitter sectarian war and sparked debate over the role of private security contractors working for the U.S. government in war zones. A heavily armed, four-truck Blackwater Worldwide convoy the men were traveling in had been trying to clear a path for U.S. diplomats after a nearby car bomb. At Nisur Square, the four guards opened fire on the Iraqis, including women and children, with machine guns and grenade launchers. In addition to the 14 dead, another 17 Iraqis were wounded. Slatten’s murder conviction was for shooting dead the driver of a white Kia car that had stopped at the traffic circle. This is our interview with investigative journalist Reese Erlich after the murder conviction was handed down in 2015 REESE ERLICH, FREELANCE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: this is the most significant, most serious series of atrocities carried out by both the U.S. military and military contractors in Iraq. And frankly under the Bush administration, there was no intention to actually prosecute these guys. One of the charges expired. They allowed the statute of limitations to run. The Obama administration, Justice Department had to re-file a murder charge as a result. It was botched, and I think intentionally so, under the Bush administration because they didn’t want the details coming out of what the U.S. had done.And this is really the first time that there’s been a conviction and heavy sentencing for this kind of activity. There’s some dispute as to whether they can be tried in American courts. Of course, they can’t be tried in Iraqi court, which means effectively there’s nothing–they can do anything they want, carry out murder, mayhem, and never be held responsible for it.A question that I always wondered about and I’ve often been asked is, why would the Administration want to hire contractors when they cost so much more money and are so much more trouble to deal with than the U.S. military? I mean, they paid three, four, five times the salaries to these contractors that they do to the ordinary troops.Well, one of the reasons is because they’re not responsible to anybody. If they carry out U.S. policy by massacring people, the argument then comes up, well, they’re not doing it on U.S. soil, so they can’t be prosecuted here. Whereas the U.S. military who engage in similar activities, at least in theory, they could be held responsible to a military court. So I think what we’re seeing here is a conscious effort by certainly the last Administration, and to some extent the current Administration, to make sure that these kinds of activities can be carried out without people being held responsible. SHARMINI PERIES: What does this also tell us about–these convictions were really the guards that were responsible. But the Blackwater leadership and head of the corporation is really getting off scot-free here. ERLICH: Yeah. Not only the head, Erik Prince, the head of Blackwater, but the U.S. military officials who with a wink and a nod condoned such activities. It’s not unique. Remember Abu Ghraib, the infamous torture photos that came out some years back. Seymour Hersh and CBS and others revealed them.Well, the only people who were ever held responsible for that were extremely low-level guards in the prison. The people, including the CIA who designed the torture programs, the cabinet members in the Bush administration who approved the torture methods, were never held responsible, let alone put on trial.