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Guards to appeal on Iraq shootings


Tracy Hughes, right, comforts the mother of Nicholas Slatten, Reba, outside court in Washington (AP)

Tracy Hughes, right, comforts the mother of Nicholas Slatten, Reba, outside court in Washington (AP)

Tracy Hughes, right, comforts the mother of Nicholas Slatten, Reba, outside court in Washington (AP)

Defence lawyers have vowed to appeal the convictions of four former Blackwater security guards after a federal judge handed down lengthy prison terms for their roles in a 2007 shooting of unarmed civilians in Iraq.

They identified several issues as likely to form the basis of an appeal, including vindictive prosecution and whether State Department contractors could be charged under a federal law which covers the overseas crimes of Defence Department civilian employees.

The move comes after US District Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced former guard Nicholas Slatten to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms for their roles in the shootings that killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others in Baghdad's Nisoor Square.

Slatten, who witnesses said was the first to fire shots in the melee, was sentenced to life after being convicted last October of first-degree murder. The three other guards - Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard - were each sentenced to 30 years and one day in prison for offences including manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using firearms while committing a felony.

The incident strained US-Iraq relations and caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone.

Judge Lamberth announced the sentences after a day-long hearing at which defence lawyers had argued for leniency and presented character witnesses for their clients. At the same time, prosecutors asked that those sentences - the minimums mandatory under the law - be made even harsher. He rejected both requests.

Appearing in court wearing leg shackles and prison garb, the former contractors insisted they were innocent.

"The verdict is wrong, you know that I am innocent, sir," Slatten told the judge.

"I feel utterly betrayed by the same government I served honourably," said Slough.

But Judge Lamberth said he fully agreed with the jury's guilty verdicts and praised the Justice Department and the FBI for investigating the shooting and putting the truth "out there for the world to see".

Nearly 100 friends and relatives packed the courtroom to show support for the men, with many openly weeping throughout the proceedings. Several came to the podium, some choking back tears, to speak glowingly of the men they knew as role models and patriots who only wanted to help serve their country.

Assistant US Attorney Patrick Martin described the shooting as an unprovoked ambush of civilians and said the men have not shown remorse or taken responsibility. Defence lawyers countered that the men were targeted with gunfire and shot back in self-defence with guns the State Department had given them for safety.

"This was no unprovoked massacre, and we'll never accept that it was," said Brian Heberlig, a lawyer for Slough.

Mohammad Kinani Al-Razzaq spoke in halting English about the death of his nine-year-old son as a picture of the smiling boy, Ali Mohammed Hafedh Abdul Razzaq, was shown on courtroom monitors. He demanded the court show Blackwater "what the law is".

"What's the difference between these criminals and terrorists?" Mr Razzaq asked.

Defence lawyers also argued for mercy, saying decades-long sentences would be unconstitutionally harsh for men who operated in a stressful, war-torn environment and who have proud military careers and close family ties.

But Judge Lamberth said he would not deviate from the mandatory minimum sentences, noting that similarly stiff penalties have been applied to police officers who commit crimes while carrying automatic weapons as part of their jobs.

Defence lawyer David Schertler, who represents Heard, said he would argue on appeal that the sentences violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment given the circumstances.

Thomas Connolly, who represents Slatten, said his client would appeal on a claim of vindictive prosecution. Slatten was originally charged with manslaughter in 2007, but an appeals court threw out the charge and the statute of limitations lapsed. Mr Connolly says prosecutors then unfairly charged his client with a more serious charge of murder.

In a statement, the US Attorney's office said the case shows "that the FBI will investigate violations of US law no matter where they occur in order to bring justice to innocent victims".

Slatten, 31, is from Sparta, Tennessee; Slough, 35, from Keller, Texas; Liberty, 32, from Rochester, New Hampshire; and Heard, 33, from Maryville, Tennessee.

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