Former Blackwater guards Evan S. Liberty (far left) and Dustin L. Heard (far right) leaving court with their attorneys. (Photo: Mary F. Calvert / The Washington Times)
Washington - Five former Blackwater Worldwide security guards pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal manslaughter and gun charges resulting from a 2007 shooting in a crowded Baghdad square that killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured dozens of others.
The five - all decorated military veterans - stood silently in a line behind their lawyers as their not guilty plea on all charges was entered in front of U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina in federal court.
They are charged with 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter and one count of using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence. The machine gun charge, typically used in drug cases, carries a 30-year minimum prison sentence.
Saying the case was complex, Urbina set a February 1, 2010 hearing date for former Marines Donald Ball of West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard of Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty of Rochester, N.H.; and Army veterans Nick Slatten of Sparta, Tenn., and Paul Slough of Keller, Texas.
The Iraqi government has labeled the guards "criminals" and is closely watching the Blackwater case. The shooting strained diplomacy between Washington and Baghdad and fueled the anti-American insurgency in Iraq, where many Iraqis saw the bloodshed in Nisoor Square as a demonstration of American brutality and arrogance.
The shooting took place around noon on Sept. 16, 2007, in a crowded square where prosecutors said civilians were running errands, getting lunch and otherwise going about their lives.
Prosecutors said the men unleashed a gruesome attack on unarmed Iraqis, with the slain including young children, women, people fleeing in cars and a man whose arms were raised in surrender as he was shot in the chest.
Twenty others were wounded in the crowded square, including one injured by a grenade launched into a nearby girls' school. Another 18 Iraqis were assaulted but not wounded, prosecutors said.
Iraqi witnesses said the contractors opened fire unprovoked and left the square littered with blown-out cars.
"This is a straightforward shooting of a lot of people," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth C. Kohl said.
But the Blackwater guards contend they were ambushed by insurgents. One of the trucks in the convoy was disabled in the ensuing firefight, the guards say.
Blackwater radio logs made available to The Associated Press by a defense attorney in the case last month raised questions about prosecutors' claims that the guards' shooting was unprovoked. The log transcripts describe a hectic eight minutes in which the guards repeatedly reported incoming gunfire from insurgents and Iraqi police.
North Carolina-based Blackwater is the largest contractor providing security in Iraq. Most of its work for the State Department is in protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq. The company has not been charged in connection with the shooting.
The five guards, all dressed in dark suits and ties, said nothing while in the courtroom.
A sixth, however, is cooperating with the government. Jeremy Ridgeway of California pleaded guilty to one count each of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and aiding and abetting. In his plea agreement with prosecutors, Ridgeway admitted there was no threat from a white Kia sedan whose driver, a medical student, was killed and his mother, in the front passenger seat, was injured.
Urbina ordered prosecutors to give defense lawyers copies of Ridgeway's sealed plea agreement in three months.
In a separate case, another former Blackwater security contractor will soon be charged in the killing of an Iraqi guard in 2006, his lawyer said.
Andrew Moonen of Seattle, a former Army Ranger, fatally shot a 32-year-old guard for Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi while wandering around drunk after a Christmas Eve party in 2006, according to a congressional report.
Moonen, now 28, said he had been in a gunfight with Iraqis. Blackwater arranged to have the State Department fly him back to the United States, fired him and fined him, and paid the slain guard's family $15,000.