WASHINGTON, DC – The sentencing hearing for four Blackwater contractors produced one life sentence and three 30-year sentences, but the legal battles are probably far from over for the four men convicted of killing 14 unarmed Iraqis in 2007.
The defense brought in character witnesses and attempted to play on the military records of the former contractors. The prosecution paraded witnesses to the shooting and pointed out the complete lack of remorse or acceptance of responsibility on the part of the defendants. In the end, the judge sentenced the men to the mandatory minimum sentences.
While the chain of events leading up to the shooting is still unclear, due in part to a suspected cover up by the US State Department, what is known is that the four men opened fire in a crowded square in Baghdad and that some of the victims were shot while fleeing the scene. Prosecutors called it a wartime atrocity.
The defendants all proclaimed their innocence at the hearing.
One of the defendants, Dustin L. Heard, said:
I am very sorry for the loss of life, but I cannot say in all honesty to the court that I believe I did anything wrong.
Nicholas Slatten, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough killed Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani’s 9-year-old son. He testified at the hearing and said:
Blackwater had power like Saddam Hussein. The power comes from the United States.
The defense has indicatedthat it plans to appeal and has raised a jurisdictional issue that may not have been thought out completely. US courts retained jurisdiction over the incident by relying on the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA). The MEJA is limited in scope to those “employed by or accompanying the armed forces.” The shooters were contracted through State Department rather than through the Department of Defense.
The appeal certainly has merit, but the unintended consequences of a successful appeal may lead to an even worse sentence. The immunity granted to military contractors by the Iraqis was limited in scope as well, and if the defense successfully argues that the men were not under the jurisdiction of the MEJA, they may lose their immunity from prosecution by the Iraqi government. That immunity was revoked shortly after this shooting.
If they are not under jurisdiction of the MEJA, it is likely that they would be treated as any other American civilian that traveled to Iraq and killed more than a dozen people. They would be extradited to Iraq.
State Department might have been willing to assist the contractors in 2007, but the climate in Iraq is different now and keeping the puppet government happy while the Islamic State terrorizes the countryside is a top priority. It would be unlikely for State Department to risk offending the host government in Iraq by stiffly opposing a new extradition request.