Judge dismisses charges against Blackwater guards in Iraq deaths

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 2010; 12:35 PM

A federal judge dismissed charges against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in a controversial shooting in a busy Baghdad square two years ago in a ruling that sharply criticized the tactics of Justice Department prosecutors handling the case.

The judge, Ricardo M. Urbina of the District's federal court, found that prosecutors and agents had improperly used statements that the guards provided to the State Department in the hours and days after the shooting. The statements had been given with the understanding that they would not be used against the guards in court, the judge found, and federal prosecutors improperly used them to help guide their investigation. Urbina said other Justice Department lawyers had warned the prosecutors to tread carefully around the incriminating statements.

"In their zeal to bring charges," Urbina wrote in a 90-page opinion, "prosecutors and investigators aggressively sought out statements in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and in the subsequent investigation. In so doing, the government's trial team repeatedly disregarded the warnings of experienced, senior prosecutors, assigned to the case specifically to advise the trial team" on such matters.

The five Blackwater guards -- a sixth has pleaded guilty -- were indicted in December 2008 on manslaughter and weapons charges accusing them of killing and injuring unarmed civilians.

Federal prosecutors have said the guards killed 14 Iraqis and wounded 20 in an unprovoked blaze of bullets and grenade explosions. The guards' attorneys have said their clients opened fire in self-defense after being shot at by insurgents.

The incident, which badly strained U.S.-Iraqi relations, was the most serious one involving private security contractors in recent years, and it raised questions about using such guards in war zones. It so badly stigmatized Blackwater that the company renamed itself Xe Services.

On Friday, the Iraqi government said it may pursue its own legal case against Blackwater because it believes the employees committed a "serious crime" against its people, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters.

"What happened yesterday confirms that the trial was biased," said Ali Adeeb, a lawmaker and top advisor to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "This was an unreasonable, criminal operation, and there should have been justice in a trial."

Adeeb said the Iraqi government will put diplomatic pressure on the United States to ensure that the victims' rights are represented. "Our Iraqi diplomats should do the work to demand the victims' rights," he said.

Human rights groups have decried the incident and others involving contractors and U.S. troops that resulted in the deaths of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the most deadly of several incidents involving Blackwater in Iraq. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported that the company had been involved in at least 195 incidents in Iraq that involved the firing of weapons.

The Iraqi government wanted the guards tried in Baghdad and promised to watch the case closely. "The world quaked because of this crime," said Fared Waleed Hasson in Iraq, who was injured in the shooting. "How have we lost our rights so quickly?"

The decision is latest embarrassment for the Justice Department in a high-profile prosecution. In April, the department asked a federal judge to dismiss the corruption conviction of former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) after lapses by prosecutors.

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