US court overturns murder conviction of ex-Blackwater guard

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Washington, Aug 5 (IANS) A federal appeals court has overturned the first-degree murder conviction of a former Blackwater security contractor sentenced to life in prison over the killings of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle in 2007.

Nicolas Slatten, 33, was convicted in April 2015 of first-degree murder by a federal jury in Washington DC, but now gets a retrial in the case, NBC News reported.

Three former guards with the private military company who were found guilty in the same incident — each earning 30-year sentences earlier — also will be resentenced by an order of the court.

Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were convicted of voluntary manslaughter in October 2014 and sentenced the following May.

In deciding to give Slatten a retrial, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit on Friday concluded that the “district court abused its discretion” when it denied his request to be tried separately from his former co-workers.

Slatten was the only one who faced a murder charge because prosecutors alleged that he was the first to fire shots at the Iraqi civilians, the report said.

Prosecutors also ruled that the 30-year sentences for Slough, Liberty and Heard violated “the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment”.

The four contractors were convicted of firing wildly into cars stalled in mid-afternoon traffic at Nisour Square in Baghdad on September 16, 2007, pouring machine-gun bullets and grenades into crowds, including women clutching only purses and children holding their hands in the air, the Washington Post reported.

Prosecutors said the four defendants, among 19 Blackwater guards providing security for State Department officials in Iraq, panicked and were out of control when they fired after one of them falsely claimed that their convoy, called Raven 23, was threatened by a car bomber.

The guards said that they acted in self-defence after coming under AK-47 gunfire as they cleared a path to the nearby Green Zone for another Blackwater team evacuating a US official from a car bombing.

During the 10-week trial in 2014, no witness testified that they saw the guards come under fire, nor was evidence found that AK-47 rifles carried by Iraqi insurgents were used.

The defendants had vowed to appeal what one called a “perversion of justice”, saying they fired in self-defense in a war zone and a city that was then one of the world’s most dangerous places.

The Nisour Square shooting forced a reconsideration of America’s reliance on contractors in war zones.

–IANS

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