WASHINGTON — Ruling in a case that severely strained U.S.-Iraqi relations, a federal judge in Washington on Thursday dismissed all criminal charges against five Blackwater security guards who were accused of firing machine guns at unarmed civilians driving through a Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 of them and injuring 20 more.
The judge did not rule on the substance of the charges against the private security guards, but instead decided that prosecutors had wrongly relied on what the guards told State Department investigators shortly after the incident. As government contractors, the Blackwater employees were required to speak to an investigator after a shooting.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina said the use of these statements violated the defendants' rights against compelled self-incrimination. "In their zeal to bring charges against the defendants... the government used (their) compelled statements to guide its charging decisions... and ultimately, to obtain the indictment in this case," the judge wrote in a 90-page opinion.
"We're disappointed by the decision," said Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman. "We're still in the process of reviewing the opinion and considering our options."
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Because the indictment was thrown out on legal grounds, the government could bring an appeal.
The five guards in the case had been charged with multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter and firearms violations.
A sixth guard pleaded guilty to one count of voluntary manslaughter and helped authorities confirm the details of the incident.
The guards maintained that they fired their weapons in response to an attack by insurgents. But according to the U.S. prosecutors and an Iraqi government investigation, the shooting was unprovoked.
The September 2007 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square put a harsh spotlight on the role of private security guards in the war there. Blackwater guards were hired to provide protection for U.S. officials, but they were not bound by the same rules and procedures as the U.S. military.
In their defense, the five guards said they were responding to reports of an explosive device detonating nearby as a convoy of U.S. officials approached the area.