WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department on Thursday brought fresh charges against four former Blackwater Worldwide security contractors, resurrecting an internationally charged case over a deadly 2007 shooting on the streets of Baghdad.
A new grand jury indictment charges the men, who were hired to guard U.S. diplomats, in a shooting that inflamed anti-American sentiment abroad and heightened diplomatic sensitivities amid an ongoing war.
The guards are accused of opening fire in busy Nisoor Square on Sept. 16, 2007. Seventeen Iraqi civilians died, including women and children. Prosecutors say the heavily armed Blackwater convoy launched an unprovoked attack using sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers. Defense lawyers argue their clients are innocent men who were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents.
The guards were charged with manslaughter and weapons violations in 2008, but a federal judge the following year dismissed the case, ruling the Justice Department withheld evidence from a grand jury and violated the guards' constitutional rights. The dismissal outraged many Iraqis, who said it showed Americans considered themselves above the law. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking in Baghdad in 2010, expressed his "personal regret" for the shootings in declaring that the U.S. would appeal the court decision.
A federal appeals court reinstated the case in 2011, saying now-retired Judge Ricardo Urbina had wrongly interpreted the law. Prosecutors again presented evidence before a grand jury, and U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth gave the Justice Department until Monday to decide what to do with the case.
The defendants include Dustin Heard, a former U.S. Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, a former U.S. Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former U.S. Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn., and Paul Slough, a U.S. Army veteran from Keller, Texas.
Slatten is charged with 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 16 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter; Liberty and Heard are charged with 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 16 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter; and Slough is charged with 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 18 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter. All four were also charged with one count of using and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
The men face lengthy prison sentences if convicted.
The defendants are charged under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, a statute that allows the government to prosecute certain government employees and military contractors for crimes committed overseas. Defense lawyers have argued that the statute does not apply in this case since the guards were working as State Department contractors, not for the military.
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