WASHINGTON – Defense lawyers for the ex-Blackwater security guards accused of killing 14 Iraqis in Baghdad nearly seven years ago are raising the possibility that prosecution witnesses, with direction from Iraqi law enforcement investigators, have orchestrated their stories.
The defense has been bedeviled by the fact that no one has come forward to support its self-defense theory – that the guards acted because they were under attack.
The most prevalent explanation since the shootings on Sept. 16, 2007, is that there were no incoming shots.
The carnage at Nisoor Square turned out to be the darkest episode of contractor violence during the war and inflamed anti-American feelings around the world. The trial, which began June 11 and is expected to last months, could feature the largest group of foreign witnesses ever to travel to the U.S. to participate in a criminal trial, according to the Justice Department.
The first witness to testify, a man whose 9-year-old son was killed at the square, told an intriguing tale this past week about money and contacts between the victims' families and a top Iraqi investigator who looked into the shootings.
Mohammad Kinani Al-Razzaq broke down and sobbed uncontrollably about the loss of his son, leaving the jury with an indelible picture of grief.
Under cross-examination the following day, Kinani recounted how Iraqi law enforcement officials ran a TV ad for anyone with information about the shootings to get in touch. Kinani said he did so, meeting with Col. Faris Karim of Iraq's national police.
When the two met shortly after the shootings, there were other people there who said they also had been at Nisoor Square. An American Army officer instructed those gathered not to share information about what they had seen, Kinani testified.
"We did tell each other, for example, I would say, 'My son got killed.' The other one says, 'My brother got injured,' or so on," Kinani said.
"And everyone agreed that this convoy" of four armored Blackwater vehicles "did not take any incoming fire, correct?" Kinani was asked.
"Yes, of course," he answered.
So "the lead police officer investigating this case ... tells you and others, none of my men shot out there, correct?" Kinani was asked.
"Yes," Kinani said.
"Col. Faris told you and other witnesses at Nisoor Square that the police officers that were on the scene did not shoot at the convoy, correct?" Kinani was asked.
"He said the Iraqi police did not shoot," Kinani replied.
In a number of conversations between Kinani and the colonel, Faris told Kinani that Blackwater Worldwide was telling people lies. According to Kinani, the lies included a car bomb going off, precipitating the shootings, and that Iraqi police had been shooting at the Blackwater vehicles at Nisoor Square.
"One of the things that he told you was a lie was the claim that the Iraqi police were shooting at Blackwater, correct?" Kinani was asked.
"Yes," Kinani said.
Years later, the colonel made a phone call to Kinani's home in Michigan in December 2012. Faris said he thought Blackwater would offer Kinani money not to testify.
"Col. Faris asked you to tell him how much money it would take you — how much money you would want from Blackwater not to testify in this case, didn't he?" Kinani was asked.
"Yes, yes. As I said previously, he did not come with an offer and he wasn't talking seriously," Kinani replied. "He was just throwing questions at me and wanted to see what would my reaction be."
Kinani reported the conversation to the FBI.
"I was worried that Blackwater had tricks up its sleeves," said Kinani. "And that's why I alerted the FBI so they would be on notice and they'd be careful."
"Col. Faris also told you that he had spoken to other witnesses to these events about taking money from Blackwater, didn't he?" one of the defense lawyers asked Kinani.
"Yes," he answered.
Kinani said no one from Blackwater ever contacted him to offer him money.
The defense lawyers who questioned Kinani were Brian Heberlig, representing Paul Slough, and Thomas Connolly, representing Nicholas Slatten. The other defendants are former Blackwater security guards Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard.
All four defendants, members of a Blackwater team called Raven 23, have pleaded not guilty in the killings and the wounding of 18 others.
In opening statements Wednesday, Heberlig said there was ample evidence of incoming gunfire at Nisoor Square. Shell casings from AK-47s were found in three locations near the traffic circle and there were multiple bullet strikes on one of the convoy vehicles, the defense argued.
Other members of the Blackwater convoy reported, and radio logs reflected, that various members of the Raven 23 team said it appeared there was incoming gunfire.
In addition, bullets blew out part of the radiator on one of the Blackwater team's armored vehicles, defense lawyers said.
As armed gunmen started shooting from several locations, some of the Blackwater security guards returned fire to defend themselves and "that is not a crime," Heberlig told the jury.