Saturday 24 June 2017

Four former US security guards jailed for their roles in a 2007 shooting that killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others

This combination made from file photo shows Blackwater guards, from left, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough. (AP Photo)
This combination made from file photo shows Blackwater guards, from left, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough. (AP Photo)

Four former US security guards have been jailed for their roles in a 2007 shooting that killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others.

The carnage in Baghdad's Nisoor Square caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone.

US district judge Royce Lamberth sentenced Nicholas Slatten, who witnesses said was the first to fire shots in the incident, to life on a charge of first-degree murder.

The three other guards - Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard - were each sentenced to 30 years and one day in prison for charges that included manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.

In their first public statements since the shooting, the former Blackwater contractors - appearing in leg shackles and prison clothes - insisted they are innocent.

"I cannot say in all honesty to the court that I did anything wrong," Heard told the judge.

Judge Lamberth announced the sentences after a day-long hearing at which defence lawyers had argued for leniency and presented character witnesses for their clients.

Prosecutors asked that the sentences - the minimums mandatory under the law - be made harsher. He rejected both requests.

"Based on the seriousness of the crimes, I find the penalty is not excessive," he said.

All four were convicted in October for their involvement in the killings in central Baghdad. The legal fight over the killings has spanned years.

Prosecutors described the shooting as an unprovoked ambush of civilians and said the men have not shown remorse or taken responsibility.

Defence lawyers countered that the men were targeted with gunfire and shot back in self-defence.

Assistant US Attorney Patrick Martin urged the court to consider the gravity of the crime as well as the sheer number of dead and wounded and "count every victim".

He said: "These four men have refused to accept virtually any responsibility for their crimes and the blood they shed that day."

Video monitors in the courtroom showed photos of the dead and wounded, as well as images of cars that were riddled with bullets or blown up with grenade launchers fired by the Blackwater guards.

The defence argued for mercy, saying decades-long sentences would be unconstitutionally harsh for men who operated in a stressful, war-torn environment and who have proud military careers and close family ties.

They also argued the guards were using weapons that had been issued by the US state department for their protection.

"The punishment should be within the limits of civilised standards," defence lawyer David Schertler said.

But the judge said he would not deviate from the mandatory minimum sentences, noting that similar stiff penalties have been applied to police officers who commit crimes while carrying automatic weapons as part of their jobs.

Mohammad Kinani Al-Razzaq spoke in halting English about the death of his nine-year-old son as a picture of the smiling boy, Ali Mohammed Hafedh Abdul Razzaq, was shown on courtroom monitors.

He said: "What's the difference between these criminals and terrorists?"

The sentencing is unlikely to bring an end to the legal wrangling, which began even before the guards were first charged in 2008.

A judge later dismissed the case before trial, but an appeals court revived it and the guards were indicted again in October 2013.

Even before the trial began, defence lawyers had identified multiple issues as probably forming the basis of an appeal, including whether there was proper legal jurisdiction to charge the defendants in the first place.

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