US President Donald Trump has pardoned four former Blackwater security guards convicted over their involvement in the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007.
Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard opened fire in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square while escorting an American diplomatic convoy.
The White House said the pardons were supported by the public and lawmakers.
But the father of a boy who died called them “indescribable” and a rights group said Mr Trump had hit a “new low”.
There was no immediate response from the Iraqi government.
What happened in Nisoor Square?
Slatten, Slough, Liberty and Heard were among 19 Blackwater private security contractors assigned to guard a convoy of four heavily-armoured vehicles carrying US personnel on 16 September 2007.
According to the US justice department, at about noon that day several of the contractors opened fire in and around Nisoor Square, a busy roundabout that was immediately adjacent to the heavily-fortified Green Zone.
When they stopped shooting, at least 14 Iraqi civilians were dead – 10 men, two women and two boys, aged nine and 11. Iraqi authorities put the toll at 17.
US prosecutors said Slatten was the first to fire, without provocation, killing Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubiay, an aspiring doctor who was driving his mother to an appointment.
The contractors said they mistakenly believed that they were under attack.
The incident caused international outrage, strained relations between the US and Iraq, and sparked a debate over the role of contractors in warzones.
What charges did the contractors face?
In 2014, a US federal court found Slatten guilty of murder, while Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and other charges. Slatten was sentenced to life in prison, and the other three were handed 30-year terms.
However, the US Court of Appeals reversed Slatten’s conviction and ordered that the three others be resentenced for their roles in the crime.
Slatten was retried in 2018, but a mistrial was declared after the jury was unable to reach a verdict. The second retrial began later that year and Slatten was found guilty of committing first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2019.
Slough, Liberty and Heard subsequently had their sentences reduced to 15, 14 and 12 years respectively.
Why did President Trump pardon them?
A White House statement said Slatten, Slough, Liberty and Heard had a “long history of service to the nation” as veterans of the US Army and US Marine Corps, and that their pardons were “broadly supported by the public… and elected officials”.
It added that the Court of Appeals “ruled that additional evidence should have been presented at Mr Slatten’s trial”, and that prosecutors recently disclosed “that the lead Iraqi investigator, who prosecutors relied heavily on to verify that there were no insurgent victims and to collect evidence, may have had ties to insurgent groups himself”.
What has been the reaction?
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said Mr Trump had “hit a disgraceful new low with the Blackwater pardons”.
“These military contractors were convicted for their role in killing 17 Iraqi civilians and their actions 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.”
Mohammed Kinani, whose nine-year-old son Ali was killed in Nisoor Square, told Middle East Eye: “No-one is above the law is what we learned in America, but now there’s someone above the law.”
“I don’t know how this is allowed. I don’t think that America is built on such principles,” he added.