Two men who worked for the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater have been charged in the May 2009 shooting deaths of two Afghan men at the scene of a traffic accident, the Justice Department said.
In an indictment unsealed Thursday, Justin Cannon, 27, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Christopher Drotleff, 29, of Virginia Beach, Va., were charged with two counts of second-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, six counts of using and discharging a firearm during a violent crime and four counts of murder resulting from the use of a firearm during a violent crime.
The men, who were providing the Afghan army and government with weapons training, were working for Paravant LLC, a subsidiary of Blackwater Worldwide, which changed its names to Xe last year. Paravant, in turn, had been subcontracted by a subsidiary of Raytheon Co., Raytheon Technical Services Company LLC.
The shootings occured at an intersection in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The victims were identified as Romal Mohammad Naiem and Rahib Mirza Mohammad. A third man, Fareed Haji Ahmad, was wounded.
Cannon and Drotleff, both military veterans, said in recent interviews with The Associated Press that they opened fire on a car that wrecked in front of their vehicle, then turned and sped toward them after they got out to help. Both men were fired after the shootings.
“My conscience is clear about it, but that doesn’t really matter,” Cannon told The AP. ”If someone’s got an agenda, then there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Cannon and Drotleff were arrested Thursday and remain in custody. If convicted, the men could face the death penalty.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Randy Stoker and Alan Salsbury from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, as well as Trial Attorney Robert McGovern of the Criminal Division’s Domestic Security Section.
The arrests came on the same day Xe announced a settlement in seven federal lawsuits brought by Iraqis who accused the company of encouraging a culture of recklessness that led to the deaths of several Iraqi civilians. In a highly-publicized case, the company was sued for its role in the 2007 shootings in Nasoor Square in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead.
Five former guards were charged in the shootings, but a federal judge dismissed the indictment last week, saying federal prosecutors used off-limits State Department interviews to build their case. The Justice Department has not said whether it will appeal the ruling.
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Lawyers for five former Blackwater guards charged with voluntary manslaughter are seeking a government security detail when they travel to Iraq to conduct their own investigation. The Justice Department is pushing back, calling the request “radical” and unnecessary, reports The National Law Journal.
The stakes are high for the government, as more foreign-based criminal allegations take root in federal district courts in the United States, according to The NLJ.
“The experiences of the prosecutors and the FBI in Iraq, and the substantial government resources devoted to their security, illustrate an obvious truth: American lawyers and investigators working in Baghdad face mortal danger,” wrote Steptoe & Johnson LLP partner Mark Hulkower in court papers filed earlier this month. “They require professional protection to assure their survival and to enable them to perform their work.”
The Justice Department responded in court papers filed last week, arguing that the lawyers should use one of the private security contractors working in Iraq. The Justice lawyers said granting such a request would be an unprecedented and unwarranted exercise of judicial authority.
Judge Ricardo Urbina, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, spoke in court of his concern for the lawyers’ safety, but defense lawyers following the case told The NLJ that Urbina will likely side with the Justice Department.
“If they want armed bodyguards, by golly, there’s lot of folks who do that,” Puckett & Faraj military lawyer Neal Puckett of Alexandria, Va., told The NLJ.
Puckett, who has traveled to Iraq twice and owns his own body armor and Kevlar helmet, said he saw no basis for granting the request.
The government’s case against the Blackwater guards stems from a deadly shooting in Iraq in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square on Sept. 16, 2007. Seventeen unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed, after guards stopped in an crowded intersection and opened fire. Prosecutors say the guards were unprovoked.
The case is the first under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act to be filed against non-Defense Department private contractors.