Watch: Blackwater security guards may have faced enemy fire first in Nisoor Square shooting
Prosecutor: Blackwater guards may have been fired upon first
In a remarkable reversal, U.S. government lawyers now acknowledge that former Blackwater security guards convicted in a 2007 Iraqi massacre may have come under enemy fire BEFORE they discharged their weapons in a tragedy that drove a wedge between Baghdad and Washington, and sullied the global private security profession.
Erik Prince, the founder of the former Blackwater security firm now called Academi, told Circa in an exclusive interview that it was a stunning admission for the prosecution, and a major detail the defense had been arguing for his former employees since the start of the case.
“I came away from the hearing very concerned by the entire process,” said Prince, who attended the hearing at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington last week.
17 Iraqis killed at Nisoor Square in 2007
The highly charged international incident led to the convictions of four of Prince’s Blackwater contractors in 2015 for their role in the Nisoor Square incident. Seventeen civilians were killed and more than a dozen others were injured in a battle the contractors believed at the time was an act of self-defense.
On that day, the Blackwater employees, who were part of a convoy support team called Raven 23, had gone to clear and secure the roads after a vehicle bomb detonated in an area where a U.S. AID employee was having a meeting. The defense contends the contractors came under enemy fire when they entered Nisoor Square, and that a white vehicle continued to roll toward their convoy ignoring all warnings to stop. Defense lawyers said the contractors believed it was a possible suicide bomb.
The prosecution, however, has argued that Paul A. Slough, Evan S. Liberty, Dustin L. Heard, Donald W. Ball and Nicholas Slatten’s actions were unprovoked, and that they targeted innocent civilians. Slough, Liberty and Heard are serving 30 years and Slatten was given a life sentence. Charges against Ball were dropped.
But in a hearing last week, government prosecutor Demetra Lambros twice, during oral arguments, referenced testimony given by their main witness, who said he heard incoming enemy fire. Circa obtained the audio of the appeal hearing and reviewed it in its entirety.
Lambros was attempting to challenge the defense’s argument that Slatten was not the first to fire shots from the convoy.
“In fact, what [Watson] thought he heard was enemy fire,” Lambros said. “[Watson is] very clear about it. Those first shots did not come from the convoy.” She goes on to state what Watson “heard what first sounded like Iraqi AK-47 fire in the distance.”
William Miller, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, declined to comment.
“We typically do not comment on pending matters and that we declined to discuss this particular case,” said Miller.
Prince: "We've known all along"
During the original trial the defense had argued that the contractors came under attack first, but the prosecution rejected the argument, saying there were no witnesses that could corroborate the story.
“So for all these years the federal government has been painting this case as cold blooded, a cold-blooded shooting,” said Prince. “Here they are acknowledging, yes indeed, there is incoming fire. We’ve known that all along.”
Jeffery Addicott, a former Army attorney and director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's Law School in Texas, told Circa the prosecutors may have given the defense a new window.
“This could be a major boon to the defense,” said Addicott, referencing the fact that the prosecution downplayed and invariably denied the possibility that there was enemy fire, despite the fact their main witness testified he had heard incoming fire.
“The appellate court could throw the entire conviction out based on that alone,” Addicott added.
For now, Prince, the contractors and their families are waiting for the appellate court's decision.
“Now their families are stuck in limbo with decades-long prison terms for each of the men,” said Prince. “I’m hoping the appeals process brings some sanity back to it, and these men get a fair trial, or better, should walk free.”
You can follow Sara A. Carter on Twitter @SaraCarterDC