By Cathleen Watkins
Seventeen unarmed Iraqi citizens died in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007, and at least two dozen more were wounded when guards working for the contractor Blackwater USA opened fire into the square with machine guns, grenade launchers, and other weapons. Several years later, four Blackwater security guards were held accountable and convicted of charges ranging from first-degree murder to manslaughter. They were incarcerated in a U.S. prison until a few weeks ago.
On December 22, 2020, President Trump pardoned the four former Blackwater guards.
These pardons resonated with us at PII because Keith Rohman, PII’s president, had interviewed both survivors and family members of those who were killed that September day. These interviews, conducted with interpreters in Istanbul, Turkey, were part of an investigation PII conducted for attorney Susan Burke, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and other U.S. attorneys who sued Blackwater on behalf of the victims.
Rohman recalled those interviews: “The pardons really struck home for me because I had met people who were there that day, such as the traffic cop who tried to stop the shooting. I also talked to those who lost family members, such Dr. Jawad, whose wife and son were killed that day.”
The case took a slow path through the courts, and at one point in 2009 it was dismissed by a federal judge. While speaking at a Baghdad news conference, Joe Biden, then vice president, expressed disappointment and said a “dismissal is not an acquittal.” The Obama administration appealed, and in 2011 a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals reinstated the charges, paving the way for the eventual convictions.
Trump’s decision to grant the Christmas pardons drew criticism both in the U.S. and internationally. According to Reuters, U.N. experts on human rights asserted that the pardons violated international law because the contractors were war criminals.
At PII, we hope this tragic piece of history will be remembered. While the civil lawsuit PII took part in resulted in monetary settlements from Blackwater, nothing can replace the lives lost that day. Documenting the eye-witness accounts from Nisour Square and other first-hand experiences is one way to learn from the past, because the truth matters — now as much as ever.
Cathleen Watkins is a senior investigator at PII.