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Explained: Why Trump’s pardon to Blackwater contractors is controversial

In the weeks leading up to his exit from the White House, President Donald Trump has issued a slew of controversial pardons. Who are the Blackwater contractors, and why were they jailed for the Nisour Square massacre in Iraq?

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Vasco | Updated: December 24, 2020 4:17:53 pm
From left: Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough.(AP Photo/File)

US President Donald Trump has pardoned four former security guards from the private military firm Blackwater who were serving long jail terms for killing 14 Iraqi civilians, including two children, during the infamous 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad.

The four men — Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were convicted by a federal jury six years ago for their role in the ambush, where an armoured convoy indiscriminately opened fire on a crowd of unarmed people in the popular square in the Iraqi capital.

In the weeks leading up to his exit from the White House, President Trump has issued a slew of controversial pardons, with several more expected to be announced in the days to come. But his decision to pardon the four Blackwater guards has been regarded by many as particularly appalling, with some suggesting it could sever US-Iraqi relations even further.

What happened in Nisour Square in 2007?

On 16 September, 2007, 19 Blackwater private security officials — including the four security guards in question — opened fire on an unarmed crowd in Baghdad using machine guns, hand grenades and swiper rifles. Seventeen people were killed and 20 injured in what is widely remembered as the darkest period of American occupation in Iraq.

The men had been assigned to guard a convoy of four heavily-armoured vehicles carrying US Army personnel, who were on their way to the site of a car bomb explosion that had taken place earlier that day during the visit of a US official. At a busy intersection in the affluent neighbourhood of Nisour Square, the guards spread out and tried to stop traffic to let the trucks pass.

When one fast-approaching car did not slow down for the convoy, a Blackwater guard — who was later identified as sniper Nicholas Slatten — fired at the vehicle. One eyewitness claimed a hand grenade was also flung at the car, causing it to burst into flames. Mayhem ensued as other guards too started “recklessly” shooting innocent people who were trying to escape, eyewitnesses recalled.

But Blackwater has maintained its contractors had merely returned fire after a group of Iraqi insurgents dressed in plainclothes ambushed them at the intersection.

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What charges did the Blackwater guards face?

A US Military investigation conducted within a month of the Nisour Square incident, concluded that Blackwater was responsible for the massacre. “It was obviously excessive. It was obviously wrong,” a senior official associated with the investigation had told The Washington Post.

Slatten, who was found to be the first to open fire, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. In 2014, the other three — Slough, Liberty and Heard — were convicted on multiple charges of voluntary and attempted manslaughter and got away with a 30-year jail term each.

However, the US Court of Appeals reversed Slatten’s conviction and ordered for the other three guards to be re-sentenced as well. In 2019, Slatten was once again found guilty of first degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Meanwhile, the 30-year jail terms of Slough, Liberty and Heard were judged excessive and reduced to 15, 14 and 12 years, respectively.

A view of Nisour Square from the roof of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s headquarters in Baghdad on Friday, Oct. 12, 2007. (The New York Times: Michael Kamber)

While prosecutors said the armed convoy had launched an unprovoked attack, the four men argued they were merely returning fire after being ambushed.

In a memorandum filed after the sentencing, the US government said none of the victims were identified as insurgents, and did not appear to pose a threat to the convoy.

But what was Blackwater doing in Iraq in the first place?

In 2007, there were around 100,000 private security personnel deployed in Iraq, at least 1,000 of whom belonged to Blackwater, according to the United States Central Command. The firm had signed a $1 billion contract with the US government to protect American diplomats.

At the time of the Nisour Square massacre, several reports of private contractors who abused Iraqi civilians were beginning to surface. Blackwater was named in many of these reports, and was notorious for its mistreatment of civilians. The state department had, according to The New York Times, sent officials to investigate the matter but quickly returned after facing threats from the powerful military firm.

Outraged by the brutal killings in Nisour Square, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had announced his government would pull Blackwater’s license to operate in the country and take action against foreign contractors who were involved in the crime. The firm was eventually expelled from the country.

The company started to lose contracts from the government and resorted to changing its name twice in an effort to rebrand.

So, why did Trump pardon the four Blackwater guards?

In his final days in the White House, President Trump has been making use of the long-standing tradition of granting presidential pardons. All modern presidents of the United States have had the constitutional right to pardon individuals for nearly any federal crime committed in the country. They are not answerable for their pardons, and in most cases don’t even have to provide a reason for issuing one.

In an official statement released on Tuesday, the White House said the four men — who were all military veterans — had a “long history of service to the nation”, adding their pardons were “broadly supported by the public… and elected officials.”

Erik Prince, Blackwater’s founder, testifies before the House Oversight and Reform committee in Washington on Oct. 2, 2007, after an attack in Iraq involving Blackwater security guards. (The New York Times: Brendan Smialowski)

It went on to state the Court of Appeals “ruled that additional evidence should have been presented at Mr Slatten’s trial,” and that prosecutors had recently said “the lead Iraqi investigator, who prosecutors relied heavily on to verify that there were no insurgent victims and to collect evidence, may have had ties to insurgent groups himself.”

According to the BBC, Slough’s lawyer Brian Herberlig said the four men “didn’t deserve to spend one minute in prison”.

What has the reaction been to Donald Trump’s pardons?

Trump’s pardon of the four Blackwater contractors sparked widespread outrage amongst advocacy groups, members of the US military, the international community and victims of the devastating Nisour Square attack.

Mohammed Kinani, the father of 9-year-old Ali Kinani who was killed in the attack, told the BBC Trump’s decision had “broke my life again”.

“He broke the law. He broke everything. He broke the court. He broke the judge,” he said.

The UN Human Rights Office, too, condemned the pardons. “These four individuals were given sentences ranging from 12 years to life imprisonment, including on charges of first-degree murder. Pardoning them contributes to impunity and has the effect of emboldening others to commit such crimes in the future,” spokesperson Marta Hurtado said in a statement.

Former US Army Commanded Mark Hetling called the pardons “egregious and disgusting” in a tweet. “Shame on you Mr President,” he wrote.

International NGO Human Rights Watch said the pardons “show contempt for the rule of law”, NPR reported.

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