Former Blackwater USA guard Nicholas Slatten was sentenced on Wednesday to life in prison nearly eight months after a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder for his role in the September 2007 massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians at Nisour Square in Baghdad.
"The jury got it exactly right, this was murder," US Judge Royce Lamberth said while pronouncing the life sentence in Washington, DC. Lamberth rejected numerous requests for leniency from family, friends and supporters who argued in court that Slatten was a scapegoat being sacrificed upon the altar of US-Iraq relations. The defense had argued that the 35-year-old was "a person of high integrity" from a fourth-generation military family.
However, prosecutors charged that Slatten was the first to open fire during the September 16, 2007 massacre, killing 19-year-old Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y, who was driving his mother to an appointment. The defense unsuccessfully argued that Slatten and other guards only started shooting after Al Rubia’y’s Kia sedan, which they thought might be a suicide car bomb, moved quickly toward their convoy.
‘Shooting Like Rain’
The Nisour Square massacre was one of the most publicized US crimes of the 8-year Iraq war. The Blackwater guards were escorting a diplomatic convoy when, without provocation, they opened fire in the crowded square with machine guns, grenade launchers and other weapons.
"The shooting started like rain," recalled survivor Fareed Walid Hassan, who said he watched a woman dragging her dead young son as she desperately tried to flee the carnage. Another woman, Mohassin Kadhim, was shot dead as she shielded her son in her arms. Survivor Mohammed Kinani’s 9-year-old son Ali was shot in the head as they sat in their car.
"I was standing in shock looking at him as the door opened, and his brain fell on the ground between my feet," Mohammed recalled. "I looked and his brain was on the ground."
When the shooting finally stopped after 15 bloody, terrifying minutes, 17 Iraqis – men, women, children, people fleeing in cars and on foot, a man with his arms raised in surrender – were dead. Another 20 were injured, some severely, including one victim wounded by a grenade launched into a girls’ school.
‘A Criminal Event’
The Blackwater guards claimed the convoy was ambushed and that they opened fire to defend it. However, US troops arriving at the scene of the massacre, as well as Iraqi investigators, found no indication that the convoy had been fired upon first. Iraqi police officers did return fire, but only after one of their colleagues was shot dead. Three Blackwater guards who witnessed the incident said they believed the killings were unjustified.
Army Lt. Col. Mike Tarsa, whose soldiers rushed to Nisour Square 20 minutes after the massacre, said the event "had every indication of an excessive shooting." Tarsa concluded there was "no enemy activity involved" and described the shootings as "a criminal event."
In an attempt at damage control, top Blackwater executives authorized secret payments of $1 million to Iraqi officials to silence their criticism. In the wake of the massacre, Iraqi authorities demanded that the US government terminate all Blackwater contracts in the country. When the US refused, Iraq canceled the company’s license to operate there, but an intense State Department lobbying effort resulted in a one-year renewal.
Reckless and Deadly
Months later, US federal prosecutors found a lengthy history of reckless and deadly behavior by Blackwater personnel. Among the offenses uncovered was Slatten declaring that "he wanted to kill as many Iraqis as he could as payback for 9/11," even though Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States.
In 2007, a Congressional report revealed Blackwater contractors shot innocent Iraqis and sought to cover up the incidents, sometimes with the help of the George W. Bush administration. One drunken Blackwater guard shot and killed one of the Iraqi vice president’s bodyguards; State Department officials allowed the company to whisk him out of Iraq less than 36 hours later. Another Iraqi, a father of six, was shot dead in 2005 by a Blackwater team whose members then attempted to cover up their crime. The report found that Blackwater personnel had engaged in nearly 200 shootings over a two-and-a-half-year period and that they fired first in 80 percent of those incidents.
Five Blackwater guards including Slatten faced federal manslaughter charges in 2008, with a trial date set for early 2010. However, a federal district judge dismissed the charges after finding the Justice Department had mishandled evidence and violated the defendants’ constitutional rights. Four of the guards were finally tried in 2014, when Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder and three others were found guilty of manslaughter. Slatten was sentenced to life in prison on April 13, 2015; the other three guards received 30-year prison sentences. In August 2017, however, a federal appeals court threw out the 30-year sentences and ordered a new trial for Slatten, on the grounds that he should have been tried separately.
What’s In a Name?
Blackwater USA, which was founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince in 1997, changed its name to Xe Services in 2009 and then to Academi in 2011. In 2014 the company became a division of Constellis Holdings. Prince, who is close to President Donald Trump, has recently made headlines for pushing a plan to privatize much of the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in US history. Prince has also resurrected the Blackwater name to sell a different kind of muscle – meat. Blackwater Beef offers "local, humanely raised, farm-fresh, quality rich Black Angus beef."
The New York Times reports Slatten’s defense announced it plans to keep fighting, including by asking the District of Columbia Court of Appeals to overturn the verdict and sentence. President Donald Trump has also floated the possibility of pardons for Slatten and other accused or convicted US war criminals.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. This originally appeared at CommonDreams.