Trump pardon of Blackwater killers sparks outrage in Iraq
President Trump this week pardoned four Blackwater guards convicted of massacring Iraqi civilians in 2007. Guards Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough can be seen from the left.
It was around noon in Baghdad on September 16, 2007 when "Raven 23", a convoy with four SUVs and tactical support team from the private military company Blackwater, approached Nisour Square.
Blackwater guards jumped out of vehicles to stop traffic for a U.S. diplomatic team. At 12:08 p.m. Nicholas Slatten, the team's sniper, began shooting a white Kia limousine.
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Over the next 20 minutes, the guards used heavy machine guns and grenades to kill 17 Iraqi civilians - including two children - and wounded 17 others. The FBI found that at least 14 of the murders were unjustified.
The massacre sparked a wave of international outrage over a culture of impunity surrounding private security companies. It took nearly eight years, but five members of Raven 23 were eventually convicted and jailed in the case.
On Tuesday evening, President Trump pardoned four of them, a decision that reflected his tolerance of illegal military violence and rekindled anger over one of the most troubling episodes of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.
"President Trump has hit a shameful new low with the Blackwater pardons," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national security project. "These military contractors have been condemned for their role in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians and the acts they caused - devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States, and a worldwide scandal."
In a statement on Twitter urging the US government to reconsider the pardons, the Iraqi State Department said the decision violated "the values of justice, human rights and the rule of law" and "ignored the dignity of victims."
Iraqi politicians and other figures also used social media to condemn Trump for taking the move.
"The pardon for the Blackwater killers renews the crime against the Iraqi people," tweeted Muhammad Waeli, an Iraqi commentator.
US opponents used it as evidence of Washington's insincerity.
"There has to be a position not only from the Iraqi government but also from international societies and rights groups that the United States operates with double standards," said Naeem Aboudi, an Iraqi parliamentarian and former spokesman for Asaib Ahl al Haq, a paramilitary faction with Iran said in a telephone interview.
"These men have been tried in US courts, they are murderers, and it was a very clear crime in which innocent defenseless civilians were killed in cold blood."
In a statement announcing the pardons - under 20 pardons or commutations the president issued Tuesday - the White House said they were "largely publicly supported."
The breaking of beliefs had become a special event. Guard supporters have long insisted on the distortion of evidence and tried to question the investigation carried out by the Iraqi police.
"God bless the president for having the courage - which many other presidents would not - to forgive these men, these veterans who defended diplomats there who got into an impossible situation," said Pete Hegseth, moderator and former Fox News officer in the Army National Guard said on Wednesday Airborne.
The investigation into the Nisour massacre was the FBI's largest and most expensive criminal investigation since its investigation into the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Dozens of witnesses were flown to Washington from Iraq, according to Paul Dickinson, an attorney for families of victims of the shooting.
"None of the victims had guns," he tweeted. "They were all shot or wounded in their cars."
He said the youngest 9-year-old Ali Kinani was in the back seat of his father's SUV when the car was hit with a barrage of bullets. One lap split open the boy's head. Other victims were a 70-year-old farmer.
The charge had been excruciating. Jeremy Ridgeway - a Blackwater contractor who was not pardoned - pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2008, received a one-year prison sentence and testified against his former colleagues.
A federal judge threw her case back in 2009, but the Obama administration reopened her.
Three of the guards - Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard - were ultimately convicted of 13 voluntary manslaughter and 17 attempted manslaughter charges, and were sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Slatten was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubiay, a 19-year-old Iraqi medical student who drove the Kia and drove his mother to a doctor's appointment.
"In the killing and mutilation of unarmed civilians, these defendants have acted inappropriately and without reason," the US law firm said in a statement at the time of the conviction in 2015.
"Combined, the amount of unnecessary human loss and suffering attributable to the criminal conduct of the defendants on September 16, 2007 is staggering."
A federal appeals court halved the sentences for Slough, Liberty and Heard and overturned Slatten's first-degree murder conviction. He was convicted again in 2019.
That same year, Slatten's friend Whitney Judd spoke to the Tennessean newspaper about the four Trump's attorneys lobbying for a presidential pardon.
"They are all four dedicated combat veterans and all four are innocent men," she said.
"Our goal is to get Nick home and at the moment we believe an apology is our best bet."
In Iraq, Afghanistan, and other theaters of war, the United States relied heavily on treaty security details that were not subject to the same standards of discipline or accountability as US military personnel.
The presence of contractors blurred the lines of who was official and who wasn't, while corroding the sense of rules and regulations.
Military contracts became big business too. Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, an ally of Trump, whose sister Betsy DeVos is the education secretary.
The United States has consistently argued that it does not need to join global justice systems like the International Criminal Court because it can bring its own people to justice if necessary.
The pardons seem to invalidate this argument.
At times, Trump seems to be blessing illegal military violence.
"We train our boys to kill machines and then chase them when they kill!" He tweeted on October 12, 2019.
The following month, he intervened on three criminal or disciplinary cases involving US soldiers.
He pardoned Mathew Golsteyn, a former Green Beret commando indicted for his role in the alleged execution of an alleged bomb maker in Afghanistan in 2010.
And he pardoned Clint Lorance, a former army lieutenant who was serving a prison term for ordering his soldiers to open fire on unarmed Afghan men in 2012. Two of them were killed and several members of Lorance's platoon testified against him.
Trump also undid disciplinary action against Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murdering an Islamic State imprisoned in Iraq but who was convicted and demoted for violating the rules by impersonating photos of the body.
In an exceptional example of the president's interference in the process of military discipline, Trump reversed the downgrade and blocked attempts to evict him from his elite SEAL unit. Gallagher has since left the military.
Bulos reported from Amman and Megerian and Wilkinson from Washington.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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