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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Conviction overturned for Blackwater guard who ‘fired the first shot’ in Nisour Square massacre

Federal appeals court also orders new sentences for three other former guards jailed over the 2007 slaughter of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad

The convicted Blackwater guards: Paul Slough, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Nicholas Slatten
The convicted Blackwater guards: Paul Slough, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Nicholas Slatten

An appeals court in the United States has overturned the murder conviction of the Blackwater security guard who “fired the first shots” in the 2007 slaughter of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

Former Blackwater security contractor Nicholas Slatten had his first-degree murder conviction quashed by a federal appeals court, and a retrial ordered.

Three of Slatten’s colleagues - also former employees of the U.S. private security firm - had their lengthy prison sentences thrown out by the appeals court.

The men were convicted for their part in the Nisour Square massacre, in which 14 innocent Iraqi civilians were shot dead at a crowded traffic junction in Baghdad in 2007.

Slatten, a 33-year-old contractor from Tennessee, is serving a life sentence for his role in the killings, which strained international relations and drew intense scrutiny of the role of American contractors in the Iraq War.

Three other contractors - Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard - were each found guilty of manslaughter and firearms charges carrying mandatory 30-year terms.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that Slatten should have been tried separately from his three co-defendants in 2014.

It also said his co-defendants’ sentences “violated the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment” because prosecutors charged them with using military firearms while committing another felony.

This statute, typically employed against gang members or bank robbers, had never before been used against overseas security contractors working for the U.S. government.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington said prosecutors were still reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment.

Bill Coffield, a lawyer for Liberty, said the organisation planned to review their options, adding: "Obviously we're pleased with the court's decision in terms of the unconstitutionality of the sentence.”

David Schertler, a lawyer for Heard, said in a statement that though he believed his client was entitled to a new trial, said he was “gratified that the court recognised the gross injustice of the 30-year mandatory minimum sentences imposed in the unique war zone circumstances of this case”.

It is unclear whether any new sentences for the defendants will be significantly different than the ones originally imposed.

At the April 2015 sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said he was "very satisfied with a 30-year sentence."

The 2014 trial heard very different versions of what triggered the September 2007 massacre in Nisour Square.

The government described the killings as a one-sided ambush of unarmed civilians, while the defence said the guards opened fire only after a white Kia sedan seen as a potential suicide car bomb began moving quickly toward their convoy. No evidence of a bomb found after the shooting stopped.

In issuing their ruling benefiting the defendants, the judges said they were in no way excusing the horror of events they said "defies civilised description."

"In reaching this conclusion, we by no means intend to minimize the carnage attributable to Slough, Heard and Liberty's actions," said U.S. Circuit Judge Karen L. Henderson, writing for the court. "Their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people."