WASHINGTON – Wild, unprovoked gunfire and grenades killed 14 innocent Iraqis and hurt dozens more in a 2007 Baghdad attack, prosecutors said Monday in announcing charges with mandatory 30-year prison terms against five Blackwater Worldwide security guards.
The Justice Department called the shooting a shocking and devastating violation of human rights.
The harsh words echoed the outrage of Iraqis, who have waited more than a year to see how the U.S. would respond to the shooting on a busy street in the Iraqi capital.
The shooting by the largest U.S. security contractor in Iraq sparked international condemnation, launched congressional hearings and inspired anti-American insurgent propaganda.
The five security guards – all decorated military veterans – surrendered in federal court in Utah, where one of them lives. The five guards walked wordlessly through a phalanx of reporters. A judge ordered the guards to report to a Washington courthouse Jan. 6, where they are expected to plead not guilty.
A sixth Blackwater guard struck a deal with prosecutors, turned on his former colleagues, and pleaded guilty to killing one Iraqi and wounding another.
“None of the victims of this shooting was armed. None of them was an insurgent,” U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said at a Justice Department news conference in Washington to announce the charges.
Prosecutors said the slain included young children, women, people fleeing in cars and a man whose arms were raised in surrender as he was shot in the chest.
Twenty others were wounded in crowded Nisoor Square, including one injured by a grenade launched into a nearby girls’ school. Another 18 Iraqis were assaulted but not wounded, prosecutors said.
Blackwater, which was not charged in the case, maintains its guards were protecting themselves from what they believed was an imminent car bomb attack.
“We think it’s pure and simple a case of self-defense,” defense attorney Paul Cassell said Monday. “Tragically, people did die.”
The guards are Donald Ball, of West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard, of Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty, of Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, of Sparta, Tenn., and Paul Slough, of Keller, Texas.
The sixth guard, who is cooperating with the government, is Jeremy Ridgeway, of California. He pleaded guilty to one count each of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting. In his plea agreement with prosecutors, Ridgeway admitted there was no threat from a white Kia sedan whose driver, a medical student, was killed. The driver’s mother, in the front passenger seat, was injured.