Four former US service members who were convicted in a 2007 massacre that killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians, including children, have been pardoned by outgoing US President Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump is due to leave the White House on January 20 next year, having lost the November presidential race to president-elect Joe Biden. He has since been issuing presidential pardons to allies and former aides.
The four former Blackwater contractors, Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, were serving lengthy prison sentences prior to the presidential pardon, which were issued among 15 other pardons on Tuesday.
Mr. Trump also handed pardons to aides who lied in the Russia probe, and Republican politicians, in a move that likely be seen as an abuse of power by his critics.
The four were convicted in 2014, having killed 12 adult Iraqis and two children when they opened fire on unarmed civilians with machine-guns, grenade launchers and a sniper in a square in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in September 2017.
While indiscriminate shooting by Blackwater contractors was well known at the time, the massacre on Nisour Square was among the worst witnessed in US-occupied Iraq.
Responding to the pardon, American attorney and NBC News legal analyst Glenn Kirschner said: “Today, Trump killed justice”.
“I considered these trials one of the proudest accomplishments of the DC US Attorney’s Office, fighting for justice for those Iraqi victims.”
Among the victims was 9 years-old, Ali Kinani who was shot through the head by the Blackwater contractors, in details that strained US-Iraq relations.
That came to a head when a Washington court threw-out initial proceedings against the men, after the US Justice Department was caught withholding evidence.
Joe Biden, speaking in Baghdad in 2010 as then vice president, expressed his “personal regret” for the shootings, in remarks that led to the reopening of the case, and later convictions.
All four men were sentenced in 2014, with Slough, Liberty and Heard handed 30-year prison sentences – which were reduced – while Slatten was sentenced to life imprisonment.
They argued that they were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents before launching the attack.
Their supporters, meanwhile, had lobbied for the pardons, arguing that the men had been excessively punished in an investigation and prosecution they said was tainted.
Blackwater, a private security firm, was founded by presidential ally Erik Prince, the brother of US education secretary Betsy DeVos.
Lawyers for the four men welcomed news of the pardons on Tuesday, while Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union said they were an insult to Iraqis.
“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.” (Source: Independent UK)