Blackwater USA is facing a lawsuit over the September 16 killings in Baghdad's Nisour Square. The largest mercenary company working for the US State Department in Iraq, Blackwater may soon need more lawyers on its payroll than it has armed operatives in Baghdad.
Even before its operatives opened fire on a crowded Baghdad street in mid-September, allegedly killing seventeen Iraqi civilians and wounding twenty-four others, Blackwater faced two wrongful death lawsuits in the United States stemming from its activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, a federal investigation into arms smuggling accusations and a mounting Congressional inquiry. Now the stakes have gotten even higher for the politically connected mercenary firm.
The families of three Iraqis killed in the Nisour Square shootings have filed a major lawsuit in a US federal court in Washington, DC, against Erik Prince's firm, charging that Blackwater's actions amounted to "extra-judicial killing" and "war crimes." The case was filed by veteran lawyer Susan Burke in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights and attorney Shereef Hadi Akeel.
"Blackwater's repeated and consistent failure to act in accord with the law of war, US law and international law harms our nation and it harms Iraq," says CCR president Michael Ratner. "For the good of both nations, as well as for countless innocent civilians, the company cannot be allowed to continue operating extra-legally, providing mercenaries who flout all kinds of law." The suit is believed to be the first US case brought by Iraqi civilians against a private armed military company, though Burke is also suing the US contracting firms Titan and CACI for their alleged role in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
The three Iraqis named in the lawsuit who were killed on September 16–Oday Ismail Ibraheem, Himoud Saed Atban and Usama Fadhil Abbass–had fourteen children among them, one an infant, according to Burke. "Needless to say, we are very interested in holding this company accountable and in pursuing the lawsuit vigorously," she said. Another plaintiff, Talib Mutlaq Deewan, was injured during the incident. The lawsuit "seeks punitive damages in an amount sufficient to punish Erik Prince and his Blackwater companies for their repeated callous killing of innocents."
The suit comes just days after the Iraqi government released its official report on the Nisour Square shooting. In the report, Baghdad calls on US authorities to hand over the Blackwater shooters to be prosecuted in Iraqi courts. The government also wants Blackwater to pay $8 million to each of the seventeen victims' families, totaling $136 million, an amount the government report says is warranted "because Blackwater uses employees who disrespect the rights of Iraqi citizens even though they are guests in this country." Iraq backed off initial demands that the company immediately leave the country, saying it wanted Washington to sever all contracts with Blackwater within six months.
Blackwater and the State Department have both shrugged off the Iraqi investigation, saying that judgment should be withheld until the official US investigation is complete. But that process has already proven to be severely compromised. Not only did a Blackwater contractor write the State Department's initial report on the incident on official government stationary; many witnesses have not been interviewed, and vehicles containing forensic evidence have not been secured even though the investigation is wrapping up, according to CBS News. "A lot of that evidence has been destroyed," retired military analyst Col. Steve Lyons told the network.
Burke says she filed the lawsuit after being approached by some of the victims' families. Her legal team in Baghdad has already begun gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. The lawsuit alleges that at the time of the Nisour Square shootings, Blackwater was no longer protecting a State Department official, having already dropped off the official under its protection prior to arriving in the square. "We allege that Blackwater personnel were not provoked, and that they had no legitimate reason to fire on civilians," says Burke. "We look forward to forcing Blackwater and Mr. Prince to tell the world under oath why this attack happened, particularly since a Blackwater guard tried to stop his colleagues from indiscriminately firing." Shortly after the incident, a US official told the Washington Post that at least one Blackwater operative at the scene "drew a weapon on his colleagues and screamed for them to 'stop shooting,' " indicating that even Blackwater personnel thought the situation had spiraled out of control.
The suit contains seven counts against Prince and Blackwater. Two of them, war crimes and extra-judicial killing, are being brought under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows for litigation in US courts for violations of fundamental human rights committed overseas. The other five counts are wrongful death; assault and battery; negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent hiring, training and supervision. Attorney Burke says this case is bigger than the four plaintiffs she is representing. Ultimately, through legal discovery, she wants to expose what the suit alleges is a pattern wherein "excessive and unnecessary use of deadly force by [Blackwater] employees is not investigated or punished in any way."
"We are going to get at the internal corporate files, the e-mails, the memos to expose the corporate culture that is leading to all this death and destruction in Iraq," Burke says. "What these Iraqi families are doing is a civil service to all Iraqis because they don't want anyone else to be killed by Blackwater."
Jeremy Scahill is the author of the New York Times bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is currently a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.