WASHINGTON — Former security contractors charged in a deadly shooting in Iraq are asking a federal judge to dismiss the indictment against them as the case moves forward to trial.
The four former Blackwater Worldwide contractors are accused of taking part in a Sept. 16, 2007 shooting that prosecutors say killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. The shooting, which prosecutors contend was unprovoked, inflamed anti-American sentiment abroad and led to a criminal prosecution in Washington that has been winding through federal court for years.
Defense lawyers say the men were improperly charged under a federal law that holds military employees and contractors accountable for crimes committed outside the United States. The lawyers say the statute, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, should not apply to the defendants since they were in Iraq on a contract not with the military, but with the State Department. Though the statute also covers non-Pentagon contractors who are in support of the Defense Department’s mission, defense lawyers say the Blackwater guards were specifically assigned to diplomatic security and had no military function.
The government’s failure to link the shooting to a military mission “leaves defendants at a loss as to what they must meet at trial on this element — the element that determines whether the charged conduct is prosecutable under United States law,” the attorneys wrote in a February 21 motion seeking dismissal of the charges.
If the charges are not dismissed, then prosecutors should be ordered to provide more specific information about how the guards were supporting the overseas Pentagon mission, defense lawyers said.
The men face lengthy prison sentences if convicted of the charges, which include manslaughter and attempted manslaughter. Prosecutors have said the heavily armed Blackwater convoy launched an unprovoked attack using sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers. Defense lawyers argue their clients are innocent men who were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents.
Prosecutors have not yet filed a response, and a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office did not immediately return messages seeking comment Monday.
Defense lawyers have previously raised the jurisdictional issue, but a judge in 2009 dismissed the case on separate grounds without ruling on that particular argument. A federal appeals court later overturned the dismissal, and the Justice Department secured a new indictment last October. The trial could begin as soon as June.
The company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide is under new ownership and is now based in Virginia under the name Academi. Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who ran the company at the time of the Iraq shooting, is no longer affiliated with the company.