Four Blackwater security guards convicted in 2014 of carrying out a massacre of Iraqi civilians, sparking an international outcry over the use of mercenaries in war, have been pardoned by US President Donald Trump.
Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Nicholas Slatten were all jailed for their roles in a deadly 2007 shooting in Baghdad's Nisour Square that marked one of the lowest points of America's war in Iraq. They were convicted after a lengthy trial that saw some 30 witnesses travel from Iraq to testify against them.
In their 2014 trial a jury in Federal District Court found that the deaths of 17 Iraqis in the shooting, which began when a convoy of the guards suddenly began firing in a crowded intersection, was not a battlefield tragedy, but the result of a criminal act.
The four men were all serving extremely long sentences. Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted on multiple charges of voluntary and attempted manslaughter in 2014, while Slatten, who was the first to start shooting, was convicted of first-degree murder. Slattern was sentenced to life and the others to 30 years in prison each.
The sentences for Slough, Liberty and Heard were reviewed last year and a federal district court for the District of Columbia ordered Slough to serve 15 years, Liberty to serve 14 years and Heard to serve 12 years.
According to the Guardian, an initial prosecution was thrown out by a federal judge, sparking outrage in Iraq, but the then vice-president, Joe Biden, promised to pursue a fresh prosecution, which succeeded in 2015.
At the sentencing, the US attorney's office said in a statement: "The sheer amount of unnecessary human loss and suffering attributable to the defendants' criminal conduct on 16 September 2007 is staggering."
The shock pardoning of the four men is amongst dozens of other controversial figures which the US president is seeking to absolve in the last few weeks of his term. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is reportedly amongst them.
Trump's decision has been met with outrage. Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national security project, decried the pardons. She is reported saying in Al Jazeera that the shootings caused "devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States, and a worldwide scandal. President Trump insults the memory of the Iraqi victims and further degrades his office with this action.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and co-founder of the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, described the pardon as "grotesque" in a tweet and added "meanwhile, 2 people who exposed war crimes rather than committied them – Snowden & Assange – wait to see if Trump can find the courage".
Greenwald was referring to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who was charged under the Espionage Act in 2013 with disclosing details of highly classified government surveillance programmes and WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange who is facing extradition to the US from the UK.
After news of the pardon emerged on Tuesday night, Brian Heberlig, a lawyer for one of the four pardoned Blackwater defendants, is reported saying: "Paul Slough and his colleagues didn't deserve to spend one minute in prison. I am overwhelmed with emotion at this fantastic news."