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A slap in the face of justice: Trump pardons Blackwater contractors convicted in Baghdad massacre

WASHINGTON DC, USA: US President Donald Trump’s issuance of pardons for security guards convicted of killing at least 14 Muslim civilians in a 2007 Baghdad massacre has caused an international uproar. People in Iraq expressed outrage and sadness over the pardon.

Trump issued pardons for the four Blackwater security contractors who were convicted of murder and manslaughter six years ago.

Lawyers and rights defenders said Trump pardons of Blackwater contractors undoes years-long fight for accountability.

It took a drawn-out and complicated legal process for four employees of a private United States security firm to be convicted in the September 2007 killings of 14 Iraqi citizens in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.

US prosecutors said the heavily armed Blackwater contractors used sniper weapons, machine guns and grenade launchers to indiscriminately fire at civilians in the crowded traffic circle, causing massive carnage and the killing of two children.

All four men, who are US army veterans, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

But in an instant, US President Donald Trump undid those measures when he pardoned Nicholas Slatten, Paul Alvin Slough, Evan Shawn Liberty and Dustin Laurent Heard earlier this week, in a move described by lawyers and human rights defenders as a miscarriage of justice.

“This pardon is an insult to justice and an insult to the victims who waited so many years to see some measure of justice,” Sarah Holewinski, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.

After the years-long legal process that included re-trials, Slatten was sentenced in 2019 to life in prison without parole for the murder of Ahmed Haithem Ahmed al-Rubia’y, a 19-year-old medical student who was driving his mother to an appointment when he was killed.

The three other Blackwater contractors were convicted of a voluntary massacre, attempted manslaughter and other charges in a 2014 trial. After an appeal and resentencing, they were each given between 12- and 15-year prison terms.

The killings, which took place as the Blackwater employees escorted a US convoy of vehicles in the Iraqi capital, prompted an international outcry and raised questions about the ethics of using private security contractors in US wars abroad.

Holewinski said two boys below age 12 were among the victims in Nisour Square that day.

“When the US Justice Department prosecuted these men, we saw the rule of law at work. Now Trump’s contempt for the rule of law is on full display,” she said.

Lawyers representing the victims say more than 30 people travelled from Iraq to the US to testify in the criminal proceedings against the Blackwater contractors.

They recounted the horrors that took place that day 13 years ago when 17 Iraqis were killed and at least 30 people were injured in what they called a massacre. The FBI charged the men with 14 deaths that they determined violated the use of deadly force.


In court, the contractors’ defence teams argued the men opened fire after being ambushed by armed fighters.

Blackwater, now renamed Academi, was founded by Erik Prince, a staunch Trump ally and the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. It was one of several private military firms hired to assist the US army in Iraq following its 2003 invasion and occupation of the country.

Citing an internal Department of Defense census, the Brookings Institution said almost 160,000 US private contractors were employed by numerous firms operating in Iraq in 2007 – nearly as many as the total number of US soldiers stationed there at the time.

“These veterans were working in Iraq in 2007 as security contractors responsible for securing the safety of United States personnel,” Trump said in his official clemency statement on Tuesday, about the Blackwater employees.

“When the convoy attempted to establish a blockade outside the ‘Green Zone,’ the situation turned violent, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians,” the US president said.

Paul Dickinson, a litigation lawyer who represented six victims and their families in a civil lawsuit which was settled out of court in 2010, said the pardons are “a slap in the face” for the victims.

“Up until two days ago we had done the right thing for the people in Iraq who were victims of these shootings,” Dickinson said.

“All the time and effort that the FBI and the federal prosecutors put into this has been wiped out,” he said.

“These victims have been slapped in the face because the United States government told them that we were going to fight for them, that we were going to hold people accountable for the crimes that they committed.”

Dickinson said Blackwater contractors routinely did not follow the rules of engagement in Iraq, shooting indiscriminately into cars and buildings and frequently disrespecting locals. For many Iraqis, it was difficult to differentiate between the US army and private contractors.

Ali al-Bayati, a member of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission, said the pardons are hurtful to the Iraqi victims who believed in the US justice system and have undermined the US’s standing in a protracted conflict.

“The world looks to the United States as a superpower and a defender of democracy and human rights,” al-Bayati told Al Jazeera.

“The president of the United States has used his authority and power in a wrongful way,” he said, adding that the pardons “dealt justice a blow” and harmed “the reputation of the United States” both in Iraq and abroad.

Trump’s Blackwater decision is part of a string of pardons of allies and loyalists issued during his final weeks in office. In the past week, he has pardoned nearly 50 people.

Sinan Antoon, an associate professor at New York University and the author of “The Book of Collateral Damage”, wrote in his opinion published in The Washington Post published on December 25: “We know too well by now where President Trump stands when innocent civilians are harmed or slaughtered. He has repeatedly stood firmly on the side of perpetrators — applauding, defending and, if necessary, vindicating them.”

Antoon further wrote that it seemed that Trump’s pardon to convicted Blackwater contractors show that Iraqi lives didn’t matter.


“Whether the perpetrator is a neo-Nazi in Charlottesville, a police officer in Minneapolis, or a Blackwater mercenary in Baghdad.

It was despicable, but not surprising at all, that Trump this week pardoned the four mercenaries who were convicted of slaughtering 14 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007. This is not the first time Trump has pardoned individuals convicted of war crimes in Iraq. A year ago, he pardoned Edward Gallagher, a Navy Seal convicted of committing horrendous war crimes in Mosul. Trump later welcomed Gallagher and his wife to Mar-a-Lago.”

The opinion further read” In Trump’s world, men of a certain race, in uniform or not, carrying weapons and eager to use lethal force as they see fit to reimpose order on a chaotic world, are merely “doing their jobs.” Those on the other side of the barrel are painted as thugs or barbarians. Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater (now Academi), has called Iraqis “barbarians.” Impunity for pulling the trigger is to be expected. The perpetrators become the victims and the focal point of empathy and understanding.

The massacre at Nisour Square took place in the context of the Iraq War. And it is not an aberration, but one in a long list of massacres of innocent Iraqi civilians. From the massacre of 24 civilians in Haditha in 2005, to the gang rape and murder of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and the murder of her family in Mahmudiyah in 2006, to killing an estimated 45 people at a wedding party at Mukaradeeb in 2004. These and other massacres were courtesy of uniformed soldiers, not mercenaries. I have written previously that the entire war was one colossal crime and not a “mistake,” “miscalculation” or “blunder,” as often described in this country.”