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Five Blackwater guards indicted in Iraq shooting

WASHINGTON — Defense attorneys on Saturday lambasted U.S. indictments against five decorated war veterans for deadly 2007 shootings in Baghdad.

Charges against Blackwater security guards will be unsealed Monday in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians on Sept. 16, 2007. Iraqis hope the charges will finally bring justice and improve relations with the United States.

Defense lawyers say the case has unfairly tarnished the images of the Blackwater guards. Each man has received honors for his service in some of the world's most dangerous places, including Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The five were to surrender to the FBI on Monday.

"These are indictments that never should have been brought," said Mark Hulkower, a lawyer for Army veteran Paul Slough of Keller, Texas.

Attorney David Schertler, who represents former Marine Dustin Heard of Knoxville, Tenn., said the guards "were defending themselves and their comrades who were being shot at and receiving fire from Iraqis they believed to be enemy insurgents."

According to their lawyers, the other men charged are Donald Ball, a former Marine from West Valley City, Utah; Evan Liberty, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.; and Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.

A sixth suspect was in negotiations to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for his cooperation against his former colleagues.

Slough, Ball, Heard, Liberty and Slatten have been under investigation since a convoy of Blackwater contractors opened fire in Baghdad's Nisoor Square. The dead included young children.

Witnesses say the shooting was unprovoked. Blackwater, hired by the State Department to guard U.S. diplomats, says its guards were responding to a car bombing and were ambushed by insurgents.

The shooting strained relations between the United States and Iraq, and provided fodder for anti-American insurgent propaganda in Iraq. Blackwater officials were ordered to appear at congressional hearings in Washington.

The charges come after 14 months of investigative missteps, legal wrangling and fierce debate within the government and the Justice Department.

Among the hurdles the government now faces:

• Whether U.S. law permits civilian contractors to be charged in the United States for crimes committed overseas. Prosecutors must convince a judge that the guards can be charged under a law targeting soldiers and military contractors — even though Blackwater works for the State Department.

• Convincing a jury that a drug law intended to crack down on assault weapons should be used to pump up penalties against the guards. The five men are expected to be charged with assault or manslaughter under a provision in the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that requires 30-year prison terms for using machine guns to commit violent crimes, whether drug-related or not.

• Proving that prosecutors did not rely on protected statements the guards gave to State Department investigators within hours of the shooting. The department gave limited immunity to all the guards in the four-car convoy, promising not to prosecute them based on the initial statements recounting how the violence began.

Five Blackwater guards indicted in Iraq shooting 12/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 10:59am]

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