It was a powerful message sent by a U.S. court: Contractors working for the U.S. government will be held accountable for any misconduct, even in the violent chaos of war.
On Monday one former Blackwater security guard was sentenced to life in prison and three others to 30 years in jail for their roles in the 2007 shooting at Nisour Square in Baghdad that left 14 unarmed civilians dead and numerous others wounded.
Christen Slough, wife of Paul Slough, told VOA the defendants would be filing for a retrial this week and the court decision was a miscarriage of justice.
“I am telling you confidently, confidently, that the four men who were prosecuted and eventually convicted in this case, were convicted for the convenience of the U.S. government, not because they were individually culpable for any of these crimes or alleged misconduct,” she said.
Slough argued that "the anti-American and anti-Blackwater sentiment that was occurring at the time in the country" contributed to the outcome of the case.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement that the "prosecution reflected the commitment of the American justice system to the rule of law, and expressed hope that the sentencing of the four defendants will bring some comfort to survivors of the shootings.”
For years, many thought the defendants - Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard - would never serve time for the events of that fatal Sunday, September 16.
“It certainly sends a powerful and hard to ignore signal: that any civilian who engages in a work relationship with the United States government in a military context - in what we might call a ‘military operational environment’ - that they are accountable,” said Geoffrey Corn, a former military law expert and currently professor of law at the South Texas College of Law.
The Blackwater private security company shooting at Nisour Square caused an uproar in Iraq, where many Iraqis felt that private security companies were a law unto themselves that often acted against civilians with impunity. It became the most infamous case of use of lethal force by private security guards employed in America’s messy eight-year war in Iraq.
But Doug Brooks, founder and president emeritus of the International Stability Operations Association said most of the work Blackwater did in Iraq at the time was with the Department of State, and everything Blackwater did - including training and operations in the field - was either supervised or approved by the Department of State.
“I think everyone agrees that what happened at Nisour Square went beyond what State intended. But nevertheless, in a sense they were almost set up for that sort of thing,” said Brooks.
“I think there were lots of complaints by many in the contracting industry that the sentences were particularly harsh because they were using automatic weapons, and there’s a machine gun law that says it’s a mandatory 30 years in prison for using a machine gun in pursuit of a crime, but those machine guns that these guys had were put in their hands [authorized] by the Department of State.”
Code of conduct for private contractors
The trial began June 17, 2014, and heard testimony from 71 witnesses, including 30 from Iraq - the largest group of foreign witnesses ever to travel to the United States for a criminal trial. The government’s witnesses included nine members of “Raven 23” - the Blackwater team on the scene that day.
The four defendants were tried under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000. Blackwater defendants have argued they were not subject to the law because the focus of the act was to establish federal criminal jurisdiction over civilians accompanying the U.S. military; it does not mention the State Department.
Corn said the government’s position was "they were in an active theater of military operations and, in essence, supporting the overall military mission, that they fell under the scope of the statute.” Ultimately, that argument prevailed.
Many feel the sentencing will push contractors to ensure their personnel are properly trained on standards of conduct and rules on the use of lethal force.
The Swiss-based International Code of Conduct (ICoCA) is a governance and oversight mechanism set up by the U.S., British, Swiss and other governments in the aftermath of the Iraq war. It lays out a code of conduct for private security contractors working with governments and private corporations.
“Blackwater was representative of the increasing perception that there were not a sufficient number of controls and accountability mechanisms for companies operating in an emerging difficult space, because by definition they are often operating in places where the rule of law is relatively weak or non-existent,” said ICoCA Executive Director Andrew Orsmand.
Brooks said what happened in Nisour Square was the exception, not the rule.
Chaos of war
Iraq in 2007 was a very high-risk environment, and many governments and entities operating there turned to private security to ensure the safety of their personnel and work. According to Brooks, some security guards ended up by seeing more combat than many military units, and hundreds were killed and injured. Blackwater alone lost more than 40 people.
Regardless of the circumstances, Corn, who served as the Army’s senior law of war expert in the Office of the Judge Advocate General, said the court concluded that the four Blackwater defendants killed innocent civilians with no legitimate justification.
“Many people in the public say it’s not fair to convict somebody who volunteers to go fight with a crime of killing somebody because we put them in that situation, but we put them in that situation with an expectation that even in the chaos of war they are able to retain an understanding of the difference between right and wrong, between moral and immoral, between justified and unjustified," said Corn.
"That is the very essence of military discipline, and it is expected of the contractors who are armed and performing a security function as well. And ultimately, this court concluded they breached that fundamental obligation, their conduct was unlawful and as a result they had to pay the price in the criminal justice process,” he said.