Mohammed Hafiz with a photo of his son, who was killed in the Blackwater shooting. Credit Khalid Mohammed/AP
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.
For years, it seemed inconceivable to Iraqis that the American justice system would ever punish the private security contractors who wantonly opened fire in a busy Baghdad traffic circle in September 2007, killing 17 civilians.
Yet, on April 13, a judge in Washington imposed lengthy sentences on four former employees of the notorious security firm then known as Blackwater. These men, who came to embody the American government’s often heavy-handed and at times careless conduct during the Iraq war, asked for leniency but were defiant in asserting their innocence. Judge Royce Lamberth of Federal District Court sentenced one of the men, Nicholas Slatten, to life in prison. The other three, Paul Slough, Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty, were sentenced to 30 years in prison. Mr. Slatten, who was the first to open fire that day, was convicted of murder. His former colleagues were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and of using a machine gun to commit a violent offense.
The sentences represented a victory for the Justice Department, which faced a litany of setbacks and challenges over the years as it struggled to make sense of the events of that day and gather evidence that could be admissible in court.
“What happened on Sept. 16, 2007, was nothing short of an atrocity,” T. Patrick Martin, one of the prosecutors who handled the case, said Monday.
The team of F.B.I. agents and federal prosecutors who oversaw the case should be commended for their perseverance. In 2009, a judge dismissed the initial set of charges filed against five Blackwater guards because the case had relied on affidavits the men submitted shortly after the massacre, having been promised immunity. That could have ended the legal proceeding. But prosecutors managed to build a case in 14 of the deaths relying on the testimony of Iraqi witnesses and former Blackwater guards, including one who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and has yet to be sentenced.
The Nisour Square massacre was among the most abominable abuses committed by Americans during the Iraq war. Shortly after the shooting, the company changed its name to Xe Services, as though a new brand could wash away its blood-soaked past. The State Department continued doing business with the company, which provided security to American diplomats and intelligence personnel and had won more than $1 billion in government contracts.
The abusive conduct of many Blackwater guards, and the sense that Washington condoned it, fueled the notion that Americans regarded Iraqis as dispensable. That view became widespread, lending legitimacy to Sunni and Shiite extremist groups that killed and maimed thousands of American troops.
The legacy of the United States’ war in Iraq will be forever tarnished by the haunting images of torture at Abu Ghraib prison that emerged in 2003 and the massacre of civilians in Haditha by American Marines in 2005. By bringing some of the Blackwater gunmen to justice, the American government has taken an important, if belated, step toward making amends.