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Baghdad massacre: US court finds ex-Blackwater mercenary guilty of murder

Nicholas Slatten convicted for his role in Baghdad square shooting that left at least 14 civilians dead in September 2007
Vehicle destroyed in 2007 Blackwater attack in Baghdad (AFP)

A former security guard working for US mercenary firm Blackwater has been found guilty of murder for his role in a notorious massacre of unarmed civilians in downtown Baghdad in 2007.

A federal jury in US District Court in Washington convicted Nicholas Slatten, 35, of first-degree murder on Wednesday after five days of deliberations.

Slatten was convicted for killing Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia'y, 19, an aspiring doctor who was one of more than a dozen civilians killed by Blackwater guards in Baghdad's Nisour Square on 16 September 2007.

“You know that this man took this sniper rifle, and through this scope he took aim at Ahmed’s head, and he fired. Boom. And he fired again. Boom,” said prosecutor Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez in his closing arguments.

"And why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, he thought he could get away with it. Nobody would know. He would never have to answer to people like you sitting in this jury room today."

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While escorting a diplomatic convoy, Blackwater guards opened fire in the bustling square with sniper rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers - allegedly without provocation - leaving at least 14 civilians dead and at least 18 wounded, AFP reported.

The Iraqi government says the death toll was higher, the news agency said.

Blackwater, which was founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, the brother of current US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was later sold and now operates as Virginia-based Academi.

Blackwater has been at the heart of widespread criticism over the use of private security contractors in Iraq following the US invasion in 2003.

The Baghdad shooting, in particular, stood out for its brutality and sparked debate over the actions of mercenaries employed in support of the US army in the country.

On Wednesday, after the court delivered its verdict, the head of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division tweeted out the images of some of the victims of the attack.

"Bera'a Saadoun suffered two bullet wounds in Nissour Square, fired by the Blackwater guards," Sarah Leah Whitson tweeted, alongside Saadoun's picture.

34 witnesses testified

The US Attorney's Office presented testimony from 34 witnesses during the trial, including four who came to the US from Iraq to testify.

According to the government's evidence, Slatten was the first to open fire.

While no date has been set for his sentencing, the US Attorney's office said the murder charge calls for a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

Slatten's family has vowed to fight back against the conviction and say they will "bring him home".

"We are confident that the erroneous legal rulings that deprived Nick of a fair trial and resulted in his wrongful conviction will be corrected. Nick is innocent, and we will never stop fighting to bring him home," said Slatten's sister, Jessica.

He thought he could get away with it. Nobody would know. He would never have to answer to people like you sitting in this jury room today

- Prosecutor Fernando Campoamor-Sanchez

It was Slatten's third trial on the charges.

In 2014, a judge handed Slatten a life sentence over the 2007 massacre, but a federal appeals court in 2017 tossed out his sentence and ordered a new trial on the grounds that Slatten should have been tried separately from his colleagues that also were involved in the massacre.

The jury in his re-trial was unable to reach a unanimous verdict in September and his most recent trial began on 5 November.

Slatten was one of four Blackwater guards who were found guilty in 2014. He was originally sentenced to life in prison while the three others were given 30-year prison sentences.

An appeals court has ordered that the three other Blackwater guards be resentenced. They are currently in custody pending resentencing.

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