[Published here December 23, 2020]
Iraqis on Wednesday were outraged, heartbroken but not surprised to hear US President Donald Trump had pardoned for four Blackwater contractors convicted of killing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
“I lost hope a long time ago,” said Fares Saadi, the Iraqi police officer who led the investigations into the shootings at Baghdad’s crowded Nisur Square.
The Blackwater team, contracted to provide security for US diplomats in Iraq following the American-led invasion in 2003, claimed they were responding to insurgent fire.
The bloody episode left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead and 17 wounded, many of whom Saadi remembered taking to the hospital himself.
“Thirteen years, you said? My God. I remember it like it was yesterday,” he told AFP by telephone in Baghdad.
“It was random fire, 360 degrees. I picked up people, drove them to the hospital, took statements,” he said.
Saadi was the lead Iraqi police investigator into the incident, coordinating with FBI teams sent to Baghdad and even providing witness testimony in US trials.
Three of the guards — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — were initially convicted of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and a firearm offense, and sentenced to 30 years each.
A fourth, Nicholas Slatten, was determined to have fired the first shots and was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Slatten was retried and sentenced in August 2019 to life in prison. The following month, Slough, Liberty and Heard had their sentences reduced by half or more.
“I was following carefully the whole time. It was a gradual reduction — I knew we’d never get justice,” Saadi said.
Iraq’s foreign ministry said Wednesday it would ask Washington to “review the decision,” which it described as “inconsistent with the US administration’s declared commitment to the values of human rights, justice and the rule of law.”
Kataeb Hezbollah, a hardline Iraqi armed group backed by Iran, said the US was “deluding itself into thinking our people would forget these crimes”.
The pardon came just a few weeks after the International Criminal Court shut down a preliminary probe into alleged war crimes by British troops in Iraq after the invasion.
The ICC prosecutor had said in 2017 that there was “reasonable basis” for believing British soldiers had committed such crimes.
But she said this month she could not find proof Britain had shielded suspects from prosecution.
Ali Bayati of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission said the back-to-back decisions showed there was little respect for human rights abroad.
“The latest decision confirms these countries’ violations of human rights and international law,” he told AFP.
“They grant immunity to their soldiers even as they claim to protect human rights.”
Baghdad was gripped by bloody sectarian warfare in 2007, and there was no local trial over the September 16 deaths in Nisur Square.
Following the shootings, Iraq announced it would not renew Blackwater’s operating license and the US State Department did not renew its contract there with the firm.
Blackwater changed its name several times, eventually becoming Academi and merging with other firms to form the Constellis Group.
One of Constellis’s smaller firms, Olive Group, is currently operating in Iraq.
“It was a charade of a trial, then they get released and it’s all over,” said Mohammed al-Shahmani, a Baghdad resident.
“The US president just proved that they occupied this country, not liberated it.”
Cheaper than water
The US trial found none of the 14 people killed in Nisur Square was armed. Many were in their vehicles, which had been sprayed with machine-gun fire.
At least one child died.
All but one of the victims’ families accepted compensation from Blackwater, a lawyer wounded in the attack told AFP previously.
Those hurt received up to $50,000, while the relatives of those killed were offered $100,000.
Haitham al-Rubaie, who lost his son Ahmad and wife Mahasin, was the only one to turn down the offers.
Ahmad was a 20-year-old medical student, a former classmate said on Wednesday.
“All of us at school were devastated and heartbroken,” said the classmate, who asked for her name to be withheld so she could speak freely.
“Times were really tough… and to hear that he and his mom were both murdered added to our sense of desperation.”
She said she expected Ahmad would have been a successful physician — like his mother — had he lived.
“It is an utter outrage, but it is also not surprising by any means. The Americans have never approached us Iraqis as equals,” the former classmate said.
“As far as they are concerned, our blood is cheaper than water and our demands for justice and accountability are merely a nuisance.”