By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 29, 2009
The founder of Blackwater USA deliberately caused the deaths of innocent civilians in a series of shootings in Iraq, attorneys for Iraqis suing the security contractor told a federal judge Friday.
The attorneys singled out Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL who is the company's owner, for blame in the deaths of more than 20 Iraqis between 2005 and 2007. Six former Blackwater guards were criminally charged in 14 of the shootings, and family members and victims' estates sued Prince, Blackwater (now called Xe Services LLC) and a group of related companies.
"The person responsible for these deaths is Mr. Prince,'' Susan L. Burke, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. "He had the intent, he provided the weapons, he provided the instructions, and they were done by his agents and they were war crimes.''
Judge T.S. Ellis III expressed deep skepticism about the claims. "Are you accusing Mr. Prince of saying 'I want our boys to go out and shoot innocent civilians?' '' he asked the attorneys."These are certainly allegations of not engaging in very nice conduct, but where are the elements that meet the elements of murder? I don't have any doubt that you can infer malice. What you can't infer, as far as I can tell, is intent to kill these people.''
Attorneysfor the former Blackwater company denied the allegations at the hearing, which was called to consider their motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Ellis said he would issue a ruling "promptly.''
The hearing -- combative in its words but respectful in tone -- was the latest fallout from Blackwater's controversial actions in Iraq. The North Carolina company, which has provided security under a lucrative State Department contract, has come under scrutiny for a string of incidents in which its heavily armed guards were accused of using excessive force.
The deadliest was a September 2007 shooting in central Baghdad in which Blackwater guards opened fire on Iraqis in a crowded street, killing 17 civilians. The company has said the guards' convoy came under fire. Five former Blackwater guards have been indicted on federal charges in 14 of those shootings. A sixth guard pleaded guilty.
The lawsuit cites that incident and other shootings to accuse the company of "lawless behavior." A consolidation of five earlier lawsuits, it says the company covered up killings and hired known mercenaries. In sworn affidavits recently filed by the plaintiffs' attorneys, two anonymous former Blackwater employees also say -- without citing evidence -- that the company may have conspired to murder witnesses in the criminal probe.
Attorneys for Blackwater say the lawsuit should be dismissed on a variety of legal grounds and that although the deaths were tragic, the guards were closely supervised by U.S. government officials. The allegations "go far beyond describing the harm allegedly suffered by Plaintiffs,'' the Blackwater attorneys wrote in their motion to dismiss. "They include an encyclopedia of vituperative assertions.''
The Blackwater attorneys are also calling on the judge to strike the affidavits from the former employees from the court record, calling them "scandalous and baseless" and designed to get publicity. Ellis has yet to rule on that motion.