Blackwater guards were convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left more than a dozen Iraqi civilians dead.
US President Donald Trump’s issuance of pardons for security guards convicted of killing at least 14 Iraqi civilians in a 2007 Baghdad massacre has caused international uproar, including in Iraq where people expressed outrage and sadness.
Trump issued pardons for the four Blackwater security contractors who were convicted of murder and manslaughter six years ago.
They were a part of an armoured convoy of vehicles escorting United States embassy officials that opened fire at a crowd of unarmed Iraqi civilians in an incident that came to be known as the Nisour Square massacre.
The deadly September 2007 shooting marked one of the lowest points of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and came just years after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal.
On Wednesday, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said the move did not “take into account the seriousness of the crime committed”, and urged the US to review its decision.
The pardons came at a delicate moment for the Iraqi leadership, which is trying to balance growing calls by some Iraqi factions for a complete US troop withdrawal from Iraq with what they see as the need for a more gradual drawdown.
“The infamous Blackwater company killed Iraqi citizens at Nisour Square. Today we heard they were released upon personal order by President Trump, as if they don’t care for the spilled Iraqi blood,” said Saleh Abed, a Baghdad resident.
“I knew we’d never get justice,” Fares Saadi, the Iraqi police officer who led the investigations, told AFP news agency.
A former classmate of a medical student killed at the time called the pardons “an utter outrage” but said they were not surprising.
“As far as they are concerned, our blood is cheaper than water and our demands for justice and accountability are merely a nuisance,” the classmate said, requesting anonymity.
The United Nations’ human rights office said on Wednesday that it was “deeply concerned” by the pardons, which it said “contributes to impunity and has the effect of emboldening others to commit such crimes in the future”.
Retired US general Mark Hertling, who served in Iraq, called the pardon “egregious and disgusting”.
“This was a craven war crime that resulted in the death of 17 Iraqi civilians. Shame on you Mr President,” Hertling tweeted, using the higher death toll reported by Iraqi authorities at the time of the shooting.
Many will be wringing their hands about Papadopoulos, but in my view the pardon of the Blackwater employees is the most egregious and disgusting of @realDonaldTrump actions. This was a graven war crime that resulted in the death of 17 Iraqi civilians. Shame on you Mr President. https://t.co/trGAbHu3WB
— Mark Hertling (@MarkHertling) December 23, 2020
Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Nicholas Slatten were convicted in 2014 after a months-long trial in Washington’s federal court and each man defiantly asserted his innocence at a sentencing hearing the following year.
Slough, Liberty and Heard were sentenced to 30 years in prison, though after a federal appeals court ordered them to be resentenced, they were each given substantially shorter punishments.
Slatten, whom prosecutors blamed for igniting the fight, was sentenced to life in prison.
A federal appeals court later overturned Slatten’s first-degree murder conviction but the justice department tried him again and secured another life sentence last year.
The now-defunct Blackwater’s owner was Erik Prince, a close Trump supporter and brother of Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.
On Tuesday, Trump extended executive clemency to people who showed strong political support for him, and former soldiers and law enforcement officials convicted of murder in on-the-job shootings.
He also extended pardons to two men convicted in the Russia election meddling investigation of his 2016 campaign – including George Papadopoulos, a former campaign aide who pleaded guilty as part of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump also granted clemency to three former Republican lawmakers that watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called “three of the most corrupt Members of Congress in recent history”.
All five have been vocal supporters of Trump.
According to an analysis by Harvard University law professor Jack Goldsmith and an assistant, Matthew Gluck, at least 42 of the 65 pardons Trump has issued so far were “to advance a political agenda” while only five were recommended by the official White House pardons attorney.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who has publicly spoken out against Trump, said: “This is rotten to the core.”
David Axelrod, a political commentator and former aide to president Barack Obama, said: “Everyone saw this raw sewage dump of pardons and commutations for @realDonaldTrump apparatchiks and loyalists coming … Yet the spectacle is still appalling. And it’s not over!”