Donald Trump’s decision to pardon four former private security contractors involved in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad “broke my life again,” Mohammed Kinani, a US-Iraqi dual citizen whose son was killed, told the BBC.
“He broke the law. He broke everything. He broke the court. He broke the judge,” Mr Kinani said. “Before [this] I felt that no-one [was] above the law.”
On Tuesday, the president pardoned Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, former contractors at the private security firm Blackwater who were in jail for killing at least 14 Iraqi civilians after firing heavy weapons into Baghdad’s busy Nisoor Square in 2007 while guarding an American diplomatic convoy.
“Mr Slatten, Mr Slough, Mr Liberty, and Mr Heard have a long history of service to the Nation,” the White House wrote in announcing the pardons.
It also claimed “the pardon of these four veterans is broadly supported by the public,” before listing a group of Republican congressman who lobbied for the move.
In fact, the Nisoor Square massacre provoked international outrage and condemnation of the use of private military contractors in war zones, and left a deep scar in the already strained relationship between Iraq and the US.
The incident occurred when the group of former veterans were working as contractors for the State Department, guarding a convoy near the heavily fortified Green Zone.
Mistakenly believing they were under attack, the men opened fire into the crowded square with automatic weapons, grenades, and a sniper rifle, killing at least 14 people, though Iraqi authorities have put the number at 17. All the dead were civilians, and included two women and two boys, aged 9 and 11, one of whom was shot in the head. (Lawyers for the men argued they were fired upon by insurgents).
FBI investigators later called the incident the “My Lai massacre of Iraq,” referencing a notorious US military killing of civilians during the Vietnam War.
Representatives for the former contractors rejoiced at the news.
“We have always believed in Dustin’s innocence and have never given up the fight to vindicate him,” David Schertler, Mr Heard’s lawyers, pardons-security-contractors-in-deadly-iraq-shooting/2020/12/22/37a7e7ba-44bb-11eb-ac2a-3ac0f2b8ceeb_story.html”>told the Washington Post. “He served his country honorably and, finally today, he has his well-deserved freedom.”
Meanwhile, civil society groups lambasted the decision to erase the men’s legal convictions, which included murder, voluntary manslaughter, and decades-long prison sentences, arguing it would embolden future war criminals.
“President Trump has hit a disgraceful new low with the Blackwater pardons,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, told The Independent in a statement. “These military contractors were convicted for their role in killing 17 Iraqi civilians and their actions caused devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States, and a worldwide scandal. President Trump insults the memory of the Iraqi victims and further degrades his office with this action.”
The UN Human Rights Office, meanwhile, said giving each of these men a pardon “contributes to impunity and has the effect of emboldening others to commit such crimes in the future”.
“The UN Human Rights Office calls on the US to renew its commitment to fighting impunity for gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as to uphold its obligations to ensure accountability for such crimes,” UNHR spokesperson Marta Hurtado told the BBC.
Prior to their pardons, the group waged a long battle against their various guilty convictions. A US federal court found Mr Slatten guilty of murder, while the other Blackwater members were charged with voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and other crimes. Mr Slatten was given life in prison, while the others were set to be locked up for decades. On appeal, Mr Slatten’s conviction was reversed, and the others were re-sentenced, then Mr Slatten had a full retrial in 2018, which ended in mistrial. After that, he was once again found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2019.
Blackwater, which has since been sold and changed names to Academi since the incident, argues it has reformed its culture since the events in 2007.
“The security industry has evolved drastically since those events, and under the direction of new ownership and leadership, Academi has invested heavily in compliance and ethics programmes, training for our employees, and preventative measures to strictly comply with all US and local government laws,” the company told Buzzfeed.
Erik Prince, the brother of Trump administration education secretary Betsey DeVos, founded Blackwater, and initially was praised for supplying highly skilled ex-special forces troops as private security contractors, though eventually the firm gained a dark reputation as its operatives proliferated across the Iraq war, reportedly firing their weapons at the slightest pretext, including to clear traffic.
Mr Prince, who is now executive director of another security firm called Frontier Services Group, has lobbied the Trump administration to let him lead a privatised war-fighting force in Afghanistan as a way to fulfill the president’s desire to reduce US troop presence in the Middle East.
This isn’t the first time the president, who polling shows is a deeply polarising figure within the active duty and veteran community, has pardoned those accused or convicted of crossing the line during war.
Last year, he pardoned a US commando who killed a suspected Afghan bomb maker, and a former army lieutenant convicted of murder for ordering his men to fire on three Afghans.
That year, he also defied the decision of top Navy officials and offered clemency and restored the rank of a demoted Navy SEAL who was convicted of posing beside a dead teenaged ISIS captive for a photo, and accused of killing him with a hunting blade, which he denies.
“Somebody has their back, and it’s called the president of the U.S., OK?” the president said at the time.
Mr Trump ran in part as a critic of the broad US military presence in the Middle East, but has often stuck with many of its most controversial features, including war-fighting drones, the expansive use of clandestine special forces troops, and the alleged use of torture at the notorious Guantánamo Bay military detention facility.
The president has issued a flurry of pardons to allies in his final days in office, including many of those ensnared in the Mueller investigation, such as former national security adviser Michael Flynn, as well as George Papadopoulos, who was a foreign policy adviser to Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign and who pleaded guilty to making false statements to federal officials.