Iraqis reacted with outrage to Donald Trump’s move to pardon four security guards from the Blackwater security company who had been arrested in a 2007 massacre that sparked protests over the use of mercenaries in the war.
The four men were part of a security convoy that fired at civilians at a roundabout in central Baghdad, killing 14 people, including a nine-year-old child, and injuring many others.
The four guards – Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Nicholas Slatten – opened fire indiscriminately with machine guns, grenade launchers and a sniper against a crowd of unarmed people at a roundabout, known as Nisour Square.
The deaths were one of the lowest points of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the condemnations were seen by many Iraqis as a rare occasion when American citizens were held responsible for the atrocities committed during the later period. Baghdad residents who spoke to the Guardian described the announcement of the departure of the US president as a “cruel slap” and an insult.
“Trump has no right to decide on behalf of the victims’ families the pardon of these criminals,” said Dr. Haidar al-Barzanji, an Iraqi researcher and scholar. “This is against human rights and against the law. Under Iraqi law, they can only be forgiven if the victims’ families forgive them. I encourage the victims’ families to file a complaint against Trump when the Biden government starts. ”
Iraqi human rights activist Haidar Salman tweeted: “I still remember my professor of hematology in the pathology department at the University of Baghdad (who was shot during the massacre along with his family) when he came back to life after his two children and his wife were killed in Nisour Square and almost lost their heads.
“One of the reasons he survived was to condemn the killers. The person who releases these criminals is more criminal. The Iraqi government must ask the Biden government to revoke the pardon ”.
The carnage in Nisour Square occurred more than four years after the invasion of the United States, which sparked a violent sectarian war and mass displacement of Iraqis. The long occupation of the United States left citizens resentful of security trains that cut through traffic at will, sometimes shooting cars that passed very close.
Private security contractors, support logistics companies or, in some cases, US military personnel, have been a frequent source of complaints about disrespectful and disrespectful behavior towards locals.
“We were afraid of them, especially Blackwater, who were the most unpleasant of all,” said Ribal Mansour, who heard the chaos in Nisour Square on September 16, 2007 and ran to the scene. “What I saw there will haunt me forever. It should be a red line. For them, being released by the US commander in chief is shameful. “
Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted on several counts of voluntary manslaughter and attempted murder in 2014, while Slatten, who was the first to shoot, was convicted of first-degree murder. Slattern was sentenced to life in prison and the others to 30 years in prison each.
An initial lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge, but then Vice President Joe Biden promised to pursue a new lawsuit, which was successful in 2015.
As a new president, Biden will certainly be pressured by Iraqi officials to overturn the decision. “It will be the first thing we will discuss with him,” said an aide to the prime minister, Mustafa Khadimi.
At the sentencing hearing, the US attorney’s office said in a statement: “The amount of unnecessary human loss and suffering attributable to the defendants’ criminal conduct on September 16, 2007 is staggering.”
After news of the pardon surfaced Tuesday night, Brian Heberlig, a lawyer for one of Blackwater’s four pardoned defendants, said: “Paul Slough and his colleagues did not deserve to spend a minute in prison. I am thrilled with this fantastic news. “
The pardons are among several that the president has given to US military and contractors accused or convicted of crimes against non-combatants and civilians in war zones. In November last year, he pardoned three US military men who were charged or convicted of war crimes, including a former army lieutenant convicted of murder for ordering his men to shoot three unarmed Afghans.
During the Blackwater contractors’ trial, defense lawyers argued that their clients responded to the fire after being ambushed by Iraqi insurgents.
But in a memo filed after the sentence, the United States government said: “None of the victims were insurgent or posed any threat to the Raven 23 convoy.”
The memo also contained quotes from relatives of the dead, including Mohammad Kinani, whose nine-year-old son Ali was killed. “That day changed my life forever. That day completely destroyed me, ”said Kinani.
FBI investigators who visited the scene over the next few days described it as the “My Lai massacre in Iraq” – a reference to the infamous massacre of civilians by American troops during the Vietnam War, in which only one soldier was convicted.
The Iraqi government announced an immediate ban on Blackwater after the murders – although it continued to operate in the country until 2009 – and the state department eventually stopped using the company to provide diplomatic security.
The massacre led to successive polls at Blackwater and the broader private contractor industry by the U.S. Department of State, Pentagon, Congress and UN.
Amid intense scrutiny, founder Erik Prince severed ties with the company in 2010, although he continued to work in the field, assembling an American-led mercenary army in the United Arab Emirates that has since been deployed in Yemen.
Blackwater’s latest incarnation, Academi, belongs to private investors and continued after Prince left to win contracts with the State Department and the Pentagon to protect US war zone facilities and train military personnel.
The 14 victims killed by the Blackwater guards were Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y, Mahassin Mohssen Kadhum Al-Khazali, Osama Fadhil Abbas, Ali Mohammed Hafedh Abdul Razzaq, Mohamed Abbas Mahmoud, Qasim Mohamed Abbas Mahmoud, Sa’adi Ali Abbas Alkarkh, Mushtaq Karim Abd Al-Razzaq, Ghaniyah Hassan Ali, Ibrahim Abid Ayash, Hamoud Sa’eed Abttan, Uday Ismail Ibrahiem, Mahdi Sahib Nasir and Ali Khalil Abdul Hussein.
All but one of the victims’ families accepted compensation payments from Blackwater: $ 50,000 for the injured and $ 100,000 for relatives of the dead.
Haitham al-Rubaie – who lost his wife, Mahasin, a doctor, and his son Ahmad, a 20-year-old medical student – was the only one to refuse the offer.
A former Ahmad colleague said that Trump’s forgiveness was not surprising to Iraqis.
“Americans have never approached Iraqis as equals,” she told AFP. “For them, our blood is cheaper than water and our demands for justice and responsibility are just a nuisance.”
Additional reports: Nechirvan Mando in Erbil