Victims of Blackwater attack demand justice

 

As guards from a private US security firm face trial for killing Iraqi civilians, survivors of the 2007 incident fear justice will be frustrated, write Raheem Salmanand Kimi Yoshinoin Baghdad

ASK LAWYER Hassan Jabbar Salman what should happen to five Blackwater Worldwide guards accused of killing 17 unarmed Iraqis and wounding 20 others, including himself, and his answer is simple: They should be hanged.

Salman watched helplessly from his car on September 16th, 2007, as Blackwater's Raven 23 convoy opened fire in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Four bullets struck his back, one piercing his left lung. Another bullet remains lodged in his arm. His injuries were so severe that an Iraqi police officer initially told his family that he was dead.

"The justice is that they must be executed," Salman said. "They opened fire on innocent, unarmed people."

His choice of words reflects the bitterness that Salman and other victims of the 2007 shootings still feel. So far, their quest for justice has been frustrated.

But yesterday, five guards who were indicted last month by a US federal grand jury were arraigned in Washington, each facing 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 20 counts of attempted manslaughter. They also are charged with using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence, which carries a 30-year minimum sentence. A sixth guard negotiated a plea agreement in exchange for offering testimony against the others.

The high-profile incident damaged Iraq-US relations and led to widespread calls for reform of private security contractors, who at the time operated free from the threat of prosecution by Iraqi authorities.

As the two countries negotiated the security agreement that outlines the withdrawal of US troops by the end of 2011, Iraqis demanded that the pact remove private security contractors' exemption from Iraqi law, a change that took effect on January 1st.

The North Carolina-based Blackwater and lawyers for the accused guards have defended the incident, saying they were fired upon by suspected insurgents.

Blackwater declined to comment on the case, but the company has stated that its guards are highly trained professionals forced to make split-second decisions in hostile environments.

The Associated Press reported last month that copies of Blackwater radio logs it had obtained showed the guards reported taking "small-arms fire".

But the sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, told prosecutors the gunfire from Blackwater guards was unprovoked, without warning and that the victims did not appear to be armed.

Salman, who still suffers from physical wounds and nightmares, said he is dedicated to ensuring the men are punished. He spoke in Geneva at a human-rights convention, keeps in regular contact with his US-based lawyer and might testify at the trial, if necessary.

He is just one of several Nisoor Square victims willing to testify. Baraa Sadoon Ismail said the injuries he suffered in the shooting changed his life.

"Just imagine having two bullets and 60 pieces of shrapnel in your body," Ismail said. "The person who shot me was a very short distance from me. When he pointed his weapon at me, I raised both hands up. But he shot me. My eyes were at his eyes when he shot me. I will never forget these moments."

Although Salman and Ismail have the opportunity to face their alleged assailants in court, victims of other past shootings involving private security contractors fear they will never see justice. So far, only Blackwater guards in the Nisoor Square shooting have been indicted.

Federal officials have said they also are investigating an incident on Christmas Eve 2006 allegedly involving an intoxicated Blackwater contractor who shot and killed a bodyguard to Iraq's vice-president.

Scott Horton, a military law expert and visiting professor at the Hofstra University school of law, said any case involving private security guards' conduct in Iraq is complicated by jurisdictional issues.

"It's going to be the first time the [US] justice department has brought a case of this sort, and we've got a number of legal theories involved here that are being taken for a first-time run," Horton said. "It's far from a plain vanilla case."

The jurisdiction problems, as well as lack of criminal investigation at the time of other reported incidents, makes it highly unlikely that suspects in those cases will be prosecuted in US courts, he added.

"It's almost impossible to go back a year or two and discover this stuff," Horton said, adding that the Nisoor Square incident resulted in prosecution only after intense pressure from the Iraqi government. - ( LA Times- Washington Postservice)