As one of his final acts in office, US President Donald Trump granted full pardons to four former Blackwater paramilitary contractors convicted of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in a 2007 massacre in Iraq's capital.
Nicholas Slatten, who is believed to have fired the first shots, was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for his role in the contractors' indiscriminate shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square. Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were found guilty of manslaughter and weapons charges for their roles in the incident.
Their convictions were the result of a lengthy effort by the US Justice Department and were bolstered by testimonies by more than 20 Iraqi witnesses as well as by other members of the American convoy present in the square on that September day.
The incident, which occurred at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war, deeply strained Baghdad’s relations with Washington. Iraq’s government has not yet released a statement on the pardons.
US prosecutors first charged the four men and two others after the FBI concluded that 14 of the 17 Iraqis killed in the square that day had died unjustifiably. Among the dead were at least two women and two children.
The case was thrown out by a judge in 2009, but just weeks later then-Vice President Joe Biden announced the US Justice Department would appeal the decision. Speaking to the press alongside Iraq’s then-President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad, Biden said the United States was “determined to hold accountable anyone who commits crimes against the Iraqi people.”
The massacre forever marked Blackwater’s reputation. The company has since undergone name and leadership changes following a number of investigations by the Justice Department. Blackwater, now called Academi, was originally founded by Trump confidant Erik Prince, brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Trump also pardoned 16 other people on Tuesday, including Alex van der Zwaan and former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who were convicted of making false statements to federal law enforcement officials as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Last year Trump pardoned three other Americans charged with war crimes: former US Army Lt. Clint Lorance, Maj. Mathew Golsteyn and Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher.
Gallagher was convicted last year of posing with the body of a teenage Islamic State prisoner he had been accused — but not convicted — of murdering. Lorance was convicted of murder after ordering his men to open fire on three Afghan men on a motorcycle, killing two of them. Golsteyn, who had not yet gone to trial when pardoned last year, was charged with murder after he admitted to killing an unarmed Afghan man suspected of being a local bomb maker in 2010.
Fox News host Pete Hegseth led sympathetic news coverage of the cases of Golsteyn, Gallagher and Lorance last year. The White House statement on Tuesday cited Hegseth’s support for the pardons of the four Blackwater members involved in the Nisoor Square massacre as well as support from various Republican members of Congress.
Tuesday’s statement by the White House made only passing reference to the civilians killed in the square, saying only, “The situation turned violent, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians.”
The Nisoor Square incident was once referred to by an FBI investigator who had visited the scene as “the My Lai massacre of Iraq.”
Last month Trump also pardoned his former national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who pled guilty to lying to the FBI as part of the Russia investigation.
Flynn reportedly met with Trump at the White House last week after publicly suggesting the president could invoke martial law and use the military to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election during an interview on the conservative Newsmax television channel.