A US federal judge has rebuked the State Department for delaying the prosecution of US security contractors charged with shooting unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007.
The guards, formerly employed by the Blackwater private security company that policed US military zones, are accused of shooting 14 Iraqi civilians without justification and in violation of deadly-force rules that pertained to American security contractors in Iraq at the time. Although the shooting occurred on September 16, 2007, the case has yet to be completely resolved because of discrepancies over evidence.
US District Judge Royce Lamberth is overseeing a related criminal case and said not only has the initial case been delayed, but other investigations have been held up as well. In an opinion dated March 26 but released for the first time Tuesday, Lamberth asked the US State Department’s inspector general to examine the issues that have plagued the proceedings.
“If the Department of State and Diplomatic Security Service had tried deliberately to sabotage this prosecution, they could have hardly done a better job,” he wrote, as quoted by Reuters.
When asked whether the agency would examine the accusations, a spokesman for the State Department’s inspector general said the US Attorney has forwarded the case to the IG’s office and that they are “carefully considering it.”
The shooting infuriated Iraqis and stressed already tense relations between Iraq and the US. The story was so polarizing that Blackwater has since renamed twice, and is now known as Academi.
FBI investigators concluded in 2007 that at least five Blackwater guards, some with automatic weapons, opened fire on Iraqi civilians. The guards initially claimed they were under attack in Baghdad’s Nisour Square and only fired in self-defense, although the investigators declared that there was no evidence to support the idea that any Iraqi had opened fire on the guards.
Exactly what happened, though, may never be known because of the investigation that followed. Officials who arrived weeks after the shooting were unable to reconstruct the day’s events in a chronological manner, a basic measure when a shooting on American soil is under consideration. They also found that surveillance video was unreliable and were frustrated when shell casings could not be recovered from the scene.
The most frustrating aspect of the case from the prosecution’s perspective is the statements the suspects made to Diplomatic Security Services agents under the stress of losing their job. Reuters reported that criminal investigators are prohibited from using coercion when trying to convince a suspect to testify. Prosecutors must now prove that the case has not been tainted by those statements, although the method by which they were attained was egregious enough for a judge to throw out the indictments in 2009 because the investigators’ conduct was so irresponsible that it “requires the dismissal of the indictment against all the defendants.”
Judge Lamberth was no less disgusted last month.
“It is incredible the way these defendants were coerced into making statements to DDS agents,” he wrote. “Yet it appears there has been no investigation of these circumstances and no one has been held accountable. Nor is there any reason to think anyone learned a lesson from this fiasco or that any steps have been taken to avoid a repetition.”
The US Department of Justice brought new charges against the former guards last year in October. A federal grand jury brought back indictments charging four of the defendants with voluntary manslaughter and a number of other crimes related to the shooting. The suspects are expected to fight the charges.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin on June 11.