Sunday, December 7, 2008

Five Blackwater Guards To Face Massacre Charges Next Week

Five Blackwater Guards To Face Massacre Charges Next Week

Guards Told to Surrender to the FBI by Monday on Manslaughter, Assault Counts

By JASON RYAN and BRIAN ROSS

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Five Blackwater guards have been told to surrender to the FBI by Monday to face federal manslaughter and assault charges connected to the shooting deaths of 17 civilians at an traffic circle in Iraq last year, ABC News has learned.

Law enforcement officials say the grand jury hearing the case was in session Thursday in Washington, D.C. and was expected to have voted on the indictments.

The federal investigation revealed that two of the Blackwater guards did most of the shooting and are expected to face either murder or manslaughter charges, law enforcement officials said.

They identified the two as Dustin Heard, of Tennessee, a former Marine who joined Blackwater in 2004; and Paul Slough, of Texas, a former U.S. Army infantry soldier who joined Blackwater in 2006.

Also told to surrender to the FBI on Monday are: Donald Ball, a former Marine Corporal from West Valley City, Utah; Evan Liberty, a former Marine who guarded US Embassies in Egypt and Guatemala from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten, a former Army sergeant from the 82 Airborne from Sparta, Tenn.

FBI agents and American prosecutors plan to travel to Baghdad next week to personally brief the families of victims about the indictments, according to the law enforcement officials.

Justice Department officials declined to comment on the ABC News report.

The bloody incident at Baghdad's Nisoor Square sparked widespread outrage in Iraq over what many considered trigger-happy American security guards who shot at civilians with impunity and no fear of consequences.

Weeks later, the Department of Justice publicly announced it had opened an investigation. Some of the defense lawyers say their clients, all former decorated members of the military in their 20's, are being used as scapegoats to quell anger at the U.S. in Iraq.

Blackwater maintained its guards fired in self-defense after coming under fire as they protected a diplomatic motorcade.

Civilians at the scene and relatives of the dead told U.S. investigators there was no hostile fire and the shootings were unprovoked.

Case Against Blackwater Guards Likely to Face Serious Legal Challenge

Prosecutors plan to charge the men under a law meant to cover soldiers and military contractors even though the Blackwater guards were in Iraq as part of a State Department security contract, according to lawyers briefed on the case.

As a result, the case is likely to face a serious challenge on technical legal grounds.

"I think a district judge would have really no choice but to dismiss the indictment," said noted military defense lawyer Gene Fidell, citing the fact the Blackwater contract was not with the military.

The jurisdiction "simply doesn't apply," Fidell said.

In a statement made the day after the September 2007 shooting, Slough told US State Department agents he opened fire on a car because "the driver looked directly at me and kept moving toward our motorcade. Fearing for my life and the lives of my teammates, I engaged the driver and stopped the threat."

U.S. investigators say the driver of the car was an unarmed civilian.

Heard, in his statement to agents, said he "heard gunshots" and "engaged the car with approximately 20 to 30 rounds from my M4 rifle."

Heard's attorney, David Schertler, said they strongly disagree with the decision to bring charges against Heard, which he characterized as "wrong and unjust."

Schertler said: "On September 16, 2007, at Nisour Square, Blackwater security guards were defending themselves and their comrades who were being shot at and receiving fire from Iraqis they believed to be enemy insurgents, in a place where the enemy has made a major city, Baghdad, the battlefield. Because of that and because of the deceptive tactics used by these insurgents against Americans, civilian casualties tragically occur. We have been and remain determined and prepared to fight these charges and we are confident that Dustin Heard will be vindicated."

Lawyers for the other Blackwater guards declined to comment. Blackwater says it has cooperated with the investigation and officials say no criminal charges are expected against the company itself.

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