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Blackwater guards' lawyers gird for battle

The indictment over the Baghdad shootings is 'second-guessing honorable men in a firefight,' says one.

December 07, 2008|Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Attorneys for five Blackwater Worldwide security guards charged in a 2007 shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead accused the government Saturday of engaging in unfair second-guessing of decisions in a combat zone.

The five guards -- a sixth is in plea negotiations -- were indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury in Washington in the 2007 Baghdad shooting, according to several sources familiar with the case. The indictment was sealed, and the exact charges are not known. The guards, all former military personnel, are expected to surrender Monday.

Sources and the guards' defense lawyers identified those who were indicted as Evan Liberty, 26, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, 25, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.; Dustin Heard, 27, a former Marine corporal from Maryville, Tenn.; Donald Ball, 26, a former Marine corporal from Salt Lake City; and Paul Slough, 29, from Sanger, Texas, who served in the Army and the Texas National Guard.

All except Liberty had served with the military in Iraq. After concluding their service, the men signed up with Blackwater.

The guards' attorneys said they would fight the government on jurisdictional and factual grounds.

"I fully expect he will be vindicated at or before trial," said Steven McCool, a lawyer representing Ball.

Tom Connolly, who represents Slatten, said that "the indictment is an effort by bureaucrats in Washington to second-guess split-second decisions made by honorable men during a firefight in the most dangerous neighborhood in the world."

"Once the jury understands the events of Sept. 16, they are not going to do what the Department of Justice is doing -- which is second-guessing honorable men in a firefight," Connolly added. "Even if they have jurisdiction, we will prevail when we meet them on the facts."

Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, declined to comment on the investigation, which is being overseen by the office and the Justice Department's National Security Division.

Calls to the guards' homes and to those of their relatives were not returned.

The guards were working as Blackwater security contractors for the State Department when they opened fire.

An Iraqi government investigation concluded that the guards had fired without provocation, and the U.S. military and the FBI found that the guards were the only ones who had opened fire that day.

Blackwater, which is not a target in the investigation, has consistently said that the men were fired upon.

The shooting damaged relations between the United States and the Iraqi government and raised serious questions about oversight of U.S. security contractors in war zones. The Iraqi parliament recently approved a security pact that allows foreign security contractors accused of crimes to be tried under Iraqi law.

Mahdi Abdul Khudor, who lost an eye in the incident, said he hoped the court would punish the contractors.

"This matter makes me happy," Khudor said. "And I hope they will receive a just penalty."

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