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Erik Prince on Blackwater verdicts: ‘A lot of politics surrounding this’

Erik Prince testifies in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the controversial private security firm he founded, Blackwater Worldwide. (Photo by Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post)

The founder and former CEO of the Blackwater Worldwide security firm said Thursday that the conviction of four of his former employees for their roles in the 2007 fatal shooting of 14 unarmed Iraqis was unexpected, and raised questions whether they received a fair trial.

“Well, there was certainly a lot of politics surrounding this and the fact that the federal government spent tens of millions of dollars on this, now trying it seven years after the event, and 7,000 miles from where it happened,” said Erik Prince, in a phone interview. “Certainly, it adds a lot of politics to it.”

Prince’s comments were his first since a federal jury in Washington convicted the Blackwater guards Wednesday after deliberating for weeks. The jury found them responsible for the deaths as well as the wounding of 17 other people in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. The incident is considered one of the lowest points of the Iraq War, and prompted a backlash against the use of private security firms, especially Blackwater.

Prince, a former Navy SEAL, founded Blackwater in 1997 and left the firm in 2010. He said the federal government is 1 for 2 in prosecuting the case, citing a judge’s decision in late 2009 to dismiss charges against five guards amid allegations that prosecutors improperly used statements the guards provided to the State Department. The government brought charges against the five guards again, including the four convicted Wednesday.

“The first time they tried it, it was thrown out for prosecutorial misconduct, and the guys have a lot of very solid options for appeal,” said Prince, who said he did not recall ever meeting the guards involved. “I’m sure they will exercise their rights to the fullest.”

Defense attorneys in the case said Wednesday they would appeal, calling the verdict wrong and incomprehensible. They have maintained that their clients acted reasonably at a time when they were providing security for American diplomats and Baghdad was plagued by a rash of car bombs and other attacks.

The jury of four men and eight women deliberated for 28 days before convicting Nicholas A. Slatten, 30, of Sparta, Tenn., of murder. Also convicted were Paul A. Slough, 35, of Keller, Tex., of 13 counts of manslaughter and 17 counts of attempted manslaughter; Evan S. Liberty, 32, of Rochester, N.H., of eight counts of manslaughter and 12 counts of attempted manslaughter; and Heard, 33, of Knoxville, Tenn., of six counts of manslaughter and 11 counts of attempted manslaughter.

Slatten faces a mandatory life sentence. The others, all military veterans, face a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.

The fifth guard involved in the case that was thrown out in 2009 is Jeremy Ridgeway, who previously pleaded guilty to manslaughter and testified for the government in the trials that concluded Wednesday. Charges against a sixth Blackwater employee, Donald Ball, were dropped.

Prince said Thursday that the case should have been tried by the military under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a different system of laws that is administered by military officers. Prince is the chairman of another security and logistics firm, Frontier Services Group, that is focusing on Africa. He also is about to release the paperback version of his bestselling book, “Civilian Warriors: The Inside story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.”

“This is a war zone case, clearly,” Prince said. “It’s probably tougher for [the jury] to get a full understanding of the events, again, 7,000 miles away and seven years later.”

The government’s case was tried by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. He was congratulated by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday. Holder plans to host the members of his Machen’s trial team at his office next week “so he can thank them individually and in person,” said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Justice Department.

Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.

Previously on Checkpoint:
Let contractors fight the Islamic State, Blackwater founder Erik Prince says