NYT: US Mistakes May Doom Blackwater Case on Iraqi Deaths

Monday, 12 May 2014 12:40 PM

By Melanie Batley

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The investigation into the 2007 killing of 17 Iraqi citizens by an American private security company, Blackwater, is on the verge of collapse because the U.S. government has made a series of mistakes in pursuing the case, according to The New York Times.

The incident was a significant low point for the United States during the Iraq War and inflamed anti-American sentiment abroad. The government has since been pursuing the Blackwater contractors, who had been hired to provide security for Americans in the war zone.

The case against the company initially appeared straightforward, according to testimony and interviews of the FBI who were immediately sent to the scene to investigate. But over the years, prosecutors have lost traction on the case, according to the Times.

To date, authorities have indicted five security guards on manslaughter and weapons charges, and a sixth entered a plea deal to testify against former colleagues. Charges  against one contractor were dropped last year because of lack of evidence.

The government also suffered a setback in April when a federal appeals court ruled that the prosecution had missed a deadline and allowed the statute of limitations to expire against a second contractor, Nicholas Slatten, the Times reported.

As a result, the judge dismissed the case against Slatten, a former Army sniper who investigators believe fired the first shots into the crowded traffic circle in Nisour Square, Baghdad.

The Justice Department has since tried to resurrect the case by charging Slatten with more serious charges of first-degree murder, which do not carry a statute of limitations, but success will require a higher burden of proof, which could reinforce the impression that American contractors were not subject to accountability for their actions in Iraq, the Times reported.

There have also been accusations by investigators that the State Department deliberately tried to undermine the case by removing evidence shortly after the shooting, and giving limited immunity to Blackwater contractors in exchange for statements about the shooting, which subsequently got leaked to the media.

"As citizens, we need to ask why our government fails to achieve any accountability for such blatant wrongdoing," said Susan Burke, a lawyer who represented Iraqi victims of the Nisour Square shooting in a lawsuit that Blackwater settled by paying an undisclosed amount, according to the Times. "The ongoing delays and mistakes undermine the confidence in the system."

Nevertheless, prosecutors continue to move forward with the lawsuits. Slatten's case is scheduled to be arraigned Monday, and the case against the three remaining guards is set to go to trial, in line with personal reassurances by Vice President Joe Biden on a recent trip to Iraq, that the government would continue to pursue the issue.

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