WASHINGTON, Dec 9 – Five guards from US security firm Blackwater Worldwide, a State Department contractor in Iraq, were charged with killing 14 Iraqi civilians and wounding 18 others using gunfire and grenades at a busy Baghdad intersection last year.,
A sixth guard pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter for the September 16, 2007 shooting in Nisur Square, the US Department of Justice said Monday.
The accused, who were released from a Utah federal court later Monday after agreeing to surrender their passports and any firearms in their possesssion, are set to face an arraignment hearing in Washington on January 6.
"What the Department of Justice revealed today is that they don’t understand that not every tragedy is a crime … In Baghdad they fought for their lives, here they will fight for their freedom," said Mark Hulkower, a lawyer representing army veteran Paul Slough. "What happened was a tragedy."
The men may face up to 10 years in jail on each of 14 manslaughter charges and seven years for each of 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, said District of Columbia attorney Jeff Taylor.
An additional weapons violation charge for their crime carries a mandatory minimum of 30 years in prison, he added.
Critics have repeatedly accused Blackwater of having a cowboy mentality and a shoot first, ask questions later approach when carrying out security duties in Iraq.
According to the indictment, the accused were part of a Blackwater detail guarding a convoy of trucks when they opened fire with automatic weapons on unarmed civilians in Baghdad.
"None of the victims of the shooting was armed," said Taylor.
"None of them was an insurgent. Many were shot while inside civilian vehicles attempting to flee. One victim was shot in the chest while standing in the street with his hands up," he said.
Blackwater has insisted its personnel were acting in self-defence.
"Based on the information available to us … we understand that these individuals acted within the rules set forth for them by the government and that no criminal violations occurred," the company said, adding it would support holding accountable any individual deemed to have acted improperly.
After the incident, the Iraqi government pressed the State Department to withdraw Blackwater from the country, but the security firm’s contract was renewed earlier this year.
A State Department review panel last year concluded that insufficient oversight of the more than 2,500 private security firms it employs in Iraq to protect diplomats and guard facilities has "undermined confidence" in those contractors, both among Iraqis and US military commanders.
The charges against the five guards were the first to be brought under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) against private contractors, which provides the US with jurisdictional control over American civilians who commit crimes abroad.
The Iraqi authorities have indicated they may seek to bring the Blackwater guards charged Monday to trial in Iraq.
Under a recently concluded Status of Forces Agreement with the United States, Iraq obtained a key concession to lift immunity to Iraqi law previously enjoyed by American security contractors.
"The Iraqi government stresses its rights and that Blackwater guards have committed crimes against Iraqi victims. The government reserves the right to prosecute them," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh has said.
The State Department declined to comment on Monday’s indictments.