- The Washington Times - Friday, January 1, 2010

A federal judge dropped Thursday all charges against five contractors with the former Blackwater security firm, who had been accused of massacring 17 Iraqi civilians in a notorious 2007 gunfight.

In a stunning New Year’s Eve decision, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina likely ended the politically charged case in a sharply worded ruling, accusing the Justice Department of making its case to the grand jury by using wrongly compelled testimony from the defendants, thus violating the defendants’ Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

“In their zeal to bring charges against the defendant in this case, the prosecutors and investigators aggressively sought out statements the defendants had been compelled to make to government investigators in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and in the subsequent investigation,” the judge wrote.

That compelled testimony consisted of what the security guards told U.S. Diplomatic Security officers in the aftermath of the Sept. 16, 2007, shootings in Nisour Square. The five men acknowledged the killings but said they were returning fire in the middle of the crowded Baghdad intersection.

At the time, the State Department promised the guards that their statements would not be used against them while threatening them with losing their jobs if they did not cooperate with the internal investigation.

Because of the immunity deal, U.S. criminal prosecutors had the difficult legal burden of proving they had built their case without the statements. In Thursday’s 90-page decision, Judge Urbina ruled that the government “utterly failed” to do this.

He described as “contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility” the explanations offered by government prosecutors and investigators. Judge Urbina said prosecutors and witnesses both had reviewed the statements during the investigation, and government attorneys had used them as guides in their questioning of witnesses before the grand jury and in their bids for search warrants.

“Far from being unimportant and insubstantial, the defendants’ compelled statements pervaded nearly every aspect of the government’s investigation and prosecution … accordingly, the court declines to excuse the government’s reckless violation of the defendants’ constitutional rights as harmless error,” he ruled, after a series of lengthy hearings to determine the admissibility of statements the security guards made to State Department investigators.

Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard, Donald Ball and Nicholas Slatten had been charged with voluntary manslaughter and firearms violations, with the federal government accusing all the men in every death, rather than charging particular Americans with killing certain Iraqis.

Dean Boyd, a spokesman for Justice Department’s National Security Division, was noncommittal on what the government would do next. Judge Urbina’s ruling can be appealed.

“We’re obviously disappointed by the decision. We’re still in the process of reviewing the opinion and considering our options,” he said.

Fred Lash, a press officer for the State Department, said his department “supported the Department of Justice investigation of this case every step of the way.” He added: “We fully support holding accountable any contractor personnel who may have committed crimes.”

Mr. Ball, Mr. Heard and Mr. Liberty are former Marines; Mr. Slatten and Mr. Slough are former soldiers. Had they been convicted on all charges, they would have received mandatory 30-year prison terms.

Mr. Ball’s attorney, Steven McCool, called the ruling “indescribable” to the Associated Press.

“It feels like the weight of the world has been lifted off his shoulders. Here’s a guy that’s a decorated war hero who we maintain should never have been charged in the first place,” he said of his client.

At the time, the defendants were employed by Blackwater Worldwide, a security contractor that has since changed its name to Xe.

Joseph Yorio, president and chief executive officer of Xe Services, claimed vindication in a statement.

“From the beginning, Xe has stood behind the hundreds of brave men who put themselves in harm’s way to protect American diplomats working in Baghdad and other combat zones in Iraq. Like the people they were protecting, our Xe professionals were working for a free, safe and democratic Iraq for the Iraqi people,” he said.

Mr. Yorio went on to say that his company looked forward to continue its work for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Nisour Square incident resulted in the Iraqi government taking from Blackwater its license to operate freely in the country; nonetheless, Blackwater and Xe have continued to provide helicopter transport for U.S. diplomats.

The company has played a key role in operations in the global war on terrorism that President Bush launched in 2001. The company has provided diplomatic security, and still does, to U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In one of the most galvanizing incidents after the successful U.S.-led invasion to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, insurgents in March 2004 attacked four Blackwater contractors guarding a food convoy in Fallujah.

Scott Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona and Michael Teague were killed and their burned bodies hung from a bridge for public abuse. Blackwater defenders have frequently cited the incident as an example of the hostile environment in which Blackwater contractors operated.

The company’s founder and former president, Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, also has volunteered for delicate CIA operations aimed at apprehending and killing senior terrorists in third countries, according to recent press reports. In addition to this, Xe provides its training facilities to both U.S. and allied nations’ special forces.

Xe has come under particularly harsh criticism from the base of the Democratic Party.

One of the group’s fiercest critics, author Jeremy Scahill posted in response to the ruling today to his Twitter account: “The Blackwater shooters should be prosecuted in an international criminal court for war crimes.”

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