WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Five Blackwater security guards were charged on Monday with killing 14 unarmed civilians and wounding 20 others in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that outraged Iraqis and strained U.S.-Iraqi relations.
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said one of the victims was shot in the chest while standing in the street with his hands up in the air while another victim was injured from a grenade fired into a nearby girls’ school.
In a 35-count indictment, the U.S. Justice Department charged the men with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempt to commit manslaughter and one weapons violation count. If convicted, the men face 10 years in prison for each manslaughter charge, plus additional time for other charges.
“The government alleges in the documents unsealed today that at least 34 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed or injured without justification or provocation by these Blackwater security guards in the shooting at Nisoor Square,” said Patrick Rowan, assistant attorney general for national security.
A sixth Blackwater guard pleaded guilty on Friday to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter, the Justice Department said.
An attorney on the team representing the five men, who surrendered to authorities in Salt Lake City, Utah, said they were innocent of all charges.
“They were hired as State Department contractors to protect State government officials,” Brent Hatch told reporters in Salt Lake City. “They did their job as they were contracted to do, as they were required to do, and as the State Department asked them to do it.”
The charges came after more than a year of FBI investigations in one of the most high-profile cases remaining before President George W. Bush leaves office in January. The incoming Obama administration will have to prosecute the case in court.
The shooting occurred as the private security firm’s guards escorted a heavily armed four-truck convoy of U.S. diplomats through Baghdad on September 16, 2007. The guards, U.S. military veterans, were responding to a car bombing when shooting erupted in a crowded intersection.
North Carolina-based Blackwater, the largest security contractor in Iraq, said, “Based on the information available to us, we understand that these individuals acted within the rules set forth for them by the government and that no criminal violations occurred.”
“If, however, it is determined that an individual acted improperly, then Blackwater supports holding that person accountable,” the firm said, adding that is too early to reach any conclusion before the legal proceedings “have run their course.”
Blackwater said it was “extremely disappointed and surprised” to learn that one guard has admitted wrongdoing. “If true, at the time of the incident and in the months that followed, this individual gave false information to the company to conceal that behavior,” it said.
The shooting enraged the Iraqi government, which wanted to put security contractors under Iraqi legal jurisdiction. Iraqis also were outraged in April when the State Department renewed Blackwater’s contract to protect personnel in Baghdad.
The incident led U.S. officials to tighten controls on guards and contractors to tone down their tactics.
Security firms working for the United States after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion enjoyed immunity from prosecution in Iraq, but that ends on December 31 under a security pact between Baghdad and Washington signed last month.
Although 17 Iraqis were killed in the shooting, U.S. Justice Department officials said the evidence supported charges in 14 deaths. They said the investigation continues, and they planned to brief the families of the Iraqi victims in the near future.
The officials told a news conference there was no evidence that any of the other 13 members of the convoy or that Blackwater itself committed any wrongdoing in the shooting.
The men appeared in court in Salt Lake City. Their motion to hold a probable cause hearing was denied. The next hearing, an arraignment, is set for January 6 in Washington, D.C.
Afterward, defense lawyer Mark Hulkower said the same legal challenges to the case would be brought again in Washington, and he expressed confidence the case will be dismissed. “These charges, quite simply, are untrue,” he told reporters.
Additional reporting by James Nelson in Salt Lake City; Editing by David Wiessler and Vicki Allen)