WASHINGTON (AP) — US President Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned four former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left more than a dozen Iraqi civilians dead and caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone.
Supporters of the former contractors at Blackwater Worldwide had lobbied for the pardons, arguing that the men had been excessively punished in an investigation and prosecution they said was tainted by problems. All four were serving lengthy prison sentences.
“Paul Slough and his colleagues didn’t deserve to spend one minute in prison,” said Brian Heberlig, a lawyer for one of the four pardoned Blackwater defendants. “I am overwhelmed with emotion at this fantastic news.”
The pardons, issued in the final days of Trump’s single term, reflect Trump’s apparent willingness to give the benefit of doubt to American service members and contractors when it comes to acts of violence in warzones against civilians. Last November, he pardoned a former US Army commando who was set to stand trial next year in the killing of a suspected Afghan bombmaker and a former Army lieutenant convicted of murder for ordering his men to fire upon three Afghans.
The Blackwater case has taken a complicated path since the killings at Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in September 2007, when the men, former veterans working as contractors for the State Department, opened fire at the crowded traffic circle.
Prosecutors asserted the heavily armed Blackwater convoy launched an unprovoked attack using sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers. Defense lawyers argued their clients returned fire after being ambushed by Iraqi insurgents.
They 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.
“I feel utterly betrayed by the same government I served honorably,” Slough told the court in a hearing packed by nearly 100 friends and relatives of the guards.
Slough and two others, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, were sentenced to 30 years in prison, though after a federal appeals court ordered them to be re-sentenced, they were each given substantially shorter punishments. A fourth, Nicholas Slatten, whom prosecutors blamed for igniting the firefight, was sentenced to life in prison.
A federal appeals court later cut Slatten’s first-degree murder conviction, but the Justice Department tried him again and secured another life sentence last year.
The trial was held years after a first indictment against the men was dismissed when a judge ruled that the Justice Department had withheld evidence from a grand jury and violated the guards’ constitutional rights. The dismissal outraged many Iraqis, who said it showed Americans considered themselves above the law.
Joe Biden, speaking in Baghdad in 2010 as the vice president, expressed his “personal regret” for the shootings in declaring that the US would appeal the court decision.
Blackwater contractors were notorious in Baghdad at the time and frequently accused of firing shots at the slightest pretext, including to clear their way in traffic. The shooting in the traffic circle stood out for the number killed, but was far from an isolated event in Iraq at the time.
Armed militants opposed to the US presence in Iraq frequently deployed vehicle bombs next to Western and Iraqi motorcades in traffic, making the ubiquitous armed guards accompanying most dignitaries extra jittery — and in Blackwater’s case, insistent about not allowing other vehicles near them.
Supporters and Russia probe
The four contractors were among 15 people pardoned Tuesday, including Republicans who were strong and early supporters of Trump and a 2016 campaign official ensnared in the Russia probe.
Those pardoned included former Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York. Trump also commuted the sentence of former Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas and pardoned a current state representative, Phil Lyman of Utah, who led an ATV protest through restricted federal lands.
Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump to be president, was sentenced to two years and two months in federal prison after admitting he helped his son and others dodge $800,000 in stock market losses when he learned that a drug trial by a small pharmaceutical company had failed.
Hunter was sentenced to 11 months in prison after pleading guilty to stealing campaign funds and spending the money on everything from outings with friends to his daughter’s birthday party.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the pardons for Hunter and Collins were granted after “the request of many members of Congress.” She noted that Hunter served the nation in the US Marines and saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trump also announced pardons for allies ensnared in the Russia investigation. One was for George Papadopoulos, his 2016 campaign adviser whose conversation unwittingly helped trigger the Russia investigation that shadowed Trump’s presidency for nearly two years. He also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who was sentenced to 30 days in prison for lying to investigators during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Van der Zwaan and Papadopoulos are the third and fourth Russia investigation defendants granted clemency. By pardoning them, Trump once again took aim at Mueller’s probe and advanced a broader effort to undo the results of the investigation that yielded criminal charges against a half-dozen associates.
Two former U.S. Border Patrol agents were also pardoned, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, convicted of shooting and wounding a Mexican drug smuggler near El Paso, Texas, in 2005.
Others on the list included a Pittsburgh dentist who pleaded guilty to health care fraud, two women convicted of drug crimes, and Alfred Lee Crum, now 89, who pleaded guilty in 1952 when he was 19 to helping his wife’s uncle illegally distill moonshine.
Crum served three years of probation and paid a $250 fine. The White House said Crum has maintained a clean record and a strong marriage for nearly 70 years, attended the same church for 60 years, raised four children, and regularly participated in charity fundraising events.