Ex-guards to get lengthy prison sentences for Iraq shootings

By Sam Hananel
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A federal judge said Monday that he won't deviate from the lengthy mandatory minimum sentences faced by four former Blackwater security guards for their role in a 2007 shooting that killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth rejected a defense motion to impose lesser sentences on the four, as well as a motion by prosecutors to increase the penalties.

That means that former guard Nicholas Slatten appears likely to be sentenced to life in prison for his first-degree murder conviction, and that three others - Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard - appear headed for a minimum of 30-year terms for multiple counts of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using firearms while committing a felony.

Lamberth deferred formally imposing the sentences while hearing emotional testimony from families of Iraqi victims as well as character witnesses urging leniency for the defendants. Defense lawyers argued for mercy but prosecutors said the men have never shown remorse or accepted responsibility.

"Based on the seriousness of the crimes, I find the penalty is not excessive," Lamberth said.

All four were convicted in October for their involvement in the killings in Nisoor Square, a crowded traffic circle in downtown Baghdad. The killings caused an international uproar and the legal fight has spanned years.

Prosecutors have described the shooting as an unprovoked ambush of civilians, though defense lawyers countered that the men were targeted with gunfire and shot back in self-defense.

The firearms convictions alone carry mandatory minimum sentences of 30 years in prison. But the government sought sentences far beyond that.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Martin urged the court to consider the gravity of the crime as well as the sheer number of dead and wounded and "count every victim."

"These four men have refused to accept virtually any responsibility for their crimes and the blood they shed that day," Martin said.

Video monitors in the courtroom showed photos of the dead and wounded, as well as images of cars that were riddled with bullets or blown up with grenade launchers fired by the Blackwater guards.

The defense argued for mercy, saying that decades-long sentences would be unconstitutionally harsh for men who operated in a stressful, war-torn environment and who have proud military careers and close family ties. They also argued the guards were using weapons that had been issued by the U.S. State Department for their protection.

But Lamberth said he would not deviate from the mandatory minimum sentences, noting that similar stiff penalties have been applied to police officers who commit crimes while carrying automatic weapons as part of their jobs.

Mohammad Kinani Al-Razzaq spoke in halting English about the death of his 9-year-old son as a picture of the smiling boy, Ali Mohammed Hafedh Abdul Razzaq, was shown on courtroom monitors.

"What's the difference between these criminals and terrorists?" Razzaq said.

The sentencing is unlikely to bring an end to the legal wrangling, which began even before the guards were first charged in 2008. A judge later dismissed the case before trial, but a federal appeals court revived it and the guards were indicted again in October 2013.

Even before the trial began, defense lawyers had identified multiple issues as likely forming the basis of an appeal, including whether there was proper legal jurisdiction to charge them in the first place.

The law under which they were charged, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, covers the overseas crimes of Defense Department civilian employees, military contractors and others who are supporting the American war mission. But defense lawyers note that the Blackwater defendants worked as State Department contractors and were in Iraq to provide diplomatic, not military, services.

Published: Tue, Apr 14, 2015

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