US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on Saturday launched a furious attack on outgoing President Donald Trump’s pardoning of four Blackwater security contractors convicted for the 2007 killing of at least 17 Iraqis. Fourteen of the dead were civilians, including two children.
The men, pardoned by the president on 22 December, had been convicted of opening fire in Baghdad’s crowded Nisour Square on 16 September 2007 in a bloody episode that caused an international scandal and heightened resentment of the American presence in Iraq.
The shooting also left 17 Iraqis wounded, while perpetuating the image of US security contractors run amok.
Omar, representative for Minnesota’s fifth congressional district, called the decision a “disgrace to our country and to the rule of law”.
“In 2007, four Blackwater contractors opened fire in a crowded intersection in Baghdad, murdering 14 Iraqi civilians,” the Democratic politician wrote on Twitter. “This week, Donald Trump granted them unconditional pardons. This is a disgrace to our country and to the rule of law
The four guards – Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Nicholas Slatten – had been part of an armoured convoy that opened fire indiscriminately with machine-guns, grenade launchers and a sniper on a crowd of unarmed people in the square in the Iraqi capital.
Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted on multiple charges of voluntary and attempted manslaughter in 2014, while Slatten, who was the first to start shooting, was convicted of first-degree murder. Slattern was sentenced to life and the others to 30 years in prison each.
A White House statement accompanying the announcement of the presidential pardon said that the four men, former members of the military, “have a long history of service to the nation”.
‘Disgraceful new low’
The announcement also drew condemnation from a number of Trump critics, including Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, AFP reported.
“If you lie to cover up for the president, you get a pardon. If you are a corrupt politician who endorsed Trump, you get a pardon. If you murder civilians while at war, you get a pardon,” Schiff said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was also scathing on the pardon of the security contractors.
“President Trump has hit a disgraceful new low with the Blackwater pardons,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.
“These military contractors were convicted for their role in killing Iraqi civilians and their actions caused devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States and a worldwide scandal. President Trump insults the memory of the Iraqi victims and further degrades his office with this action.”
“I know nothing he does is surprising any more, but what an obscene, partisan and gross abuse of power,” said Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen on Twitter.
“This is the swamp at its muckiest. January 20th can’t come soon enough,” he said, referring to the day Trump leaves office.
The US Justice Department had been adamant on prosecuting the Nisour Square shooters, refusing to drop the case despite setbacks in its legal efforts and successful appeals by the defendants.
Presidential pardons are irreversible, meaning that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden cannot re-prosecute the Blackwater contractors.
‘America is all about checks and balances’
Trump has been brandishing his pardon powers liberally, and this was not the first time he had pardoned war criminals.
Last year, he pardoned a US soldier who had killed an Iraqi detainee in 2008 as well as two service members who allegedly killed civilians in Afghanistan.
Trump also pushed for reinstating the rank of Edward Gallagher in the elite Navy Seal force after he had been accused of war crimes, a decision that led to the removal of then-navy secretary Richard V Spencer, who opposed the president’s handling of the matter in 2019.
Blackwater, now rebranded as Academi, was founded and led by Eric Prince, a Trump associate who is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The company and its founder maintain that its guards operated within the rules of engagement during the Nisour Square massacre after thinking they were being attacked.
Iraqi-American activist M Baqir Mohie el-Deen on Tuesday urged curbing the presidential powers to issue pardons without oversight.
“As Iraqis, we call on the American public to stop their government from committing travesties in Iraq. Laws can be changed,” he told MEE. “America is all about checks and balances and presidential pardons shouldn’t be immune to them.”
Mohie el-Deen also stressed the need for revising the US military’s relationship with mercenaries and private contractors.
“Americans owe this to the 17 Iraqis who were massacred… on behalf of the American government in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.”