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Army interpreter sentenced at court-martial

An Iraqi Canadian involved in a stabbing is the first civilian contractor tried by the U.S. military.

June 24, 2008|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — An Iraqi Canadian working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army was sentenced at a court-martial to five months' confinement in the stabbing of a colleague, the military said Monday.

It was the first time that a civilian contractor was tried by a military court since a change was made in U.S. law in 2006 to make this possible.

Pressure has been building on the U.S. government to tighten regulation of its contractors since a Sept. 16 shooting involving members of the U.S. security firm Blackwater Worldwide in which at least 17 Iraqis were killed.

Alaa "Alex" Mohammad Ali was accused of stabbing another interpreter in the chest at an outpost near Hit, about 90 miles west of Baghdad. The victim survived.

Prosecutors dropped a charge of aggravated assault after Ali pleaded guilty Sunday to wrongfully taking a soldier's knife, obstructing justice by disposing of it after the incident and lying to investigators.

Ali, who has been held at a stockade near the Baghdad international airport since Feb. 29, has the right to appeal the sentence, the military said in a statement.

The U.S. military has hired tens of thousands of civilians to provide services to its troops, ranging from cleaning and catering to guarding bases and interrogating suspects.

Iraqi employees can be prosecuted under their own legal system.

But foreign contractors have been operating in a legal gray area since L. Paul Bremer III issued an order granting them immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts the day before he stepped down as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in June 2004.

According to some interpretations of the order, the contractors may be liable for prosecution for offenses committed outside their official duties.

Contractors hired by the Department of Defense can be tried in a U.S. federal court for crimes committed overseas under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000.

In late 2006, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act that also places them under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the court-martial system. The charges brought against Ali marked the first time that this measure was tested.

Amnesty International, which has campaigned for greater oversight of private security contractors, argues that civilians should not be tried in military courts for serious human rights abuses, said Rebecca DeWinter-Schmitt, who advises the group.

She argued that the Justice Department should expand and clarify the scope of the extraterritorial jurisdiction act to apply to contractors working for all U.S. government agencies.

The act was changed in 2004 to include contractors working "in support" of the Defense Department, but the State Department argued after the September shooting incident that the law did not apply to those guarding its personnel.

The Blackwater security guards were protecting a State Department convoy when the shooting occurred at Nisoor Square in west Baghdad.

The North Carolina-based firm has said that its guards believed they were under attack.

But the Iraqi government maintains that the shooting was unprovoked and was outraged when the State Department renewed the company's contract in April.

The question of contractor immunity has become a key issue in negotiations for a new deal governing U.S. and Iraqi relations after the United Nations mandate for the American-led troop presence here expires at the end of the year.

Iraqi officials are demanding the authority to try U.S. military and civilian personnel for crimes committed on their territory. American negotiators have agreed to trials for contractors, but not for service members.


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