Washington DC, (TFC)– In a shocking twist, murder charges for three Blackwater military contractors have been dropped. The men have been embroiled in lengthy court proceedings since infamously massacring civilians during Iraq’s 2003 invasion.
The Nisour Square Massacre has haunted Blackwater and its founder Erik Prince even after the company was sold. In 2007, a detachment of contractors slaughtered 14 civilians including children and wounded 17. The mass shooting occurred in a crowded section of downtown Baghdad among marketplaces and dozens of pedestrians.
Defense lawyers have made the questionable argument that the squad was ambushed by insurgents. Even if attacked, however, many were disturbed by their use of machine guns and grenades in a crowd. Renowned investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill once noted the ammunition used was considered excessive under US military rules of engagement.
In 2014, after years in court examining graphic eye witness accounts, Blackwater men were convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Whereas a trio–Dustin L. Heard, Evan S. Liberty, and Paul A. Slough–received 30-year sentences, another got life.
That contractor, sniper Nicholas A. Slatten, reputedly fired the first shots which kicked off the slayings. Prior to Nisour Square, no military contractor had ever held accountable for a crime committed in any American operation.
But today, the court has decided to pick apart their charges and perhaps recharge them. Depending on the situation, that could mean their sentences would be significantly reduced, New York Times reports.
Namely, three of the contractor’s were charged with “using a machine gun to carry out a deadly crime”. Some felt the strange charges were redundant in the context of an active war zone. Most military units, conventional or otherwise, had machine gunners or teams thereof in Iraq. The weapons were issued to Humvee’s, helicopters, MRAMPS, planes, as well as individual soldiers.
According to New York Times, the court ruled the machine gun charge was intended for those bringing weapons to intentionally commit violent crimes. The charges for Blackwater’s men were then called “grossly disproportionate” to the act itself.
Nicholas Slatten’s life sentence charges, interestingly, were thrown out entirely. On one hand, prosecutors characterized Slatten as hating Iraqis and wanting “payback” for 9/11. However, the former hired gun claims he wasn’t the first to fire. Additionally, the court feels he perhaps should’ve had the same trial as his team mates. According to eyewitness reports and the prosecution, Slatten’s fired the first shot through a driver window.
If another trial is nigh, then lawyers on both sides have their work cut out for them. Initially, dozens of Iraqi witnesses were gathered alongside experts. Since 2007, Iraq has sunk into an even deeper pit of turmoil and chaos than the 2003 invasion. Much of the country is war torn, insecure, and produces thousands of refugees. Fighting between the Iraqi government, various militia groups including ISIS and international players have razed its largest cities. Tracking the witnesses back down, assuming they’re still alive, will be daunting.
There’s also the issue of a different contractor witness to the massacre, and fellow squad mate. Jeremy P. Ridgeway, however, testified against his team and is partly responsible for their lengthy sentences. Ridgeway’s trial saw numerous veterans, friends, and family arrive in support or mail letters. All attested to the US Army and National Guard vet’s patriotism and goodwill towards others. In court, Ridgeway apologized to Iraqis plagued by the crimes of Blackwater and other US actors in the country.
His testimony significantly turned the judge and jury against the other members of the Blackwater unit who fired. As a result, Ridgeway was sentenced to 12 months and a day in prison for his role in the massacre. With his team mates cleared for the meantime, is Ridgeway’s personal safety in danger? How many enemies did his testimony against Blackwater make? Under a Trump government, will he too face retrial and perhaps stiffer consequences?
Bleeding into the orange-haired elephant in the room. Trump’s is the third administration the Nisour Square case has endured since Bush. The difference today being the President has several representatives of the private military sector around him as advisors and allies.
Erik Prince and others are routinely in Trump’s and his closest confidants ears. For longstanding conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, that could mean revitalized business for Prince and company.
If Blackwater’s men face retrial, could they’ve scored a better administration? What influence or effect may Trumps rhetoric and colleagues have on the trial? Will Jeff Sessions’ appointment as head of the Justice Department at all steer the cases tempo? Opening a new trial for the Nisour Square Massacre is likely to be drowned out by Russian hacking, and now North Korea-related tension. Play close attention to the case, as it may foreshadow a future for the shadowy mercenary industry.