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EXCLUSIVE: Family Members of Slain Iraqis Sue Blackwater USA for Deadly Baghdad Shooting

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The Center for Constitutional Rights is filing a lawsuit today under the Alien Tort Claims Act on behalf of the families of three of the Iraqis killed, as well as another Iraqi who was injured, when Blackwater guards shot dead 17 Iraqis and injured many more. We speak with CCR attorney Susan Burke and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill, author of the bestselling book “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin our show with a Democracy Now! exclusive. A lawsuit is being filed today against the private military firm Blackwater USA over last month’s shooting in Baghdad, when Blackwater guards shot dead 17 Iraqis and injured many more. Earlier this week, the Iraqi government called on the Bush administration to sever its ties with Blackwater in Iraq and for the company to pay $8 million in compensation to each of the Iraqi families.

Now, Blackwater is being sued in U.S. courts over the company’s actions in Iraq. The Center for Constitutional Rights is filing a lawsuit today under the Alien Tort Claims Act on behalf of the families of three of the Iraqis killed last month, as well as another Iraqi who was injured in the shooting.

Susan Burke joins us now in Washington, D.C., attorney in Philadelphia who’s working with the Center for Constitutional Rights on the suit. Jeremy Scahill also joins us, Democracy Now! correspondent, author of the New York Times bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

Susan, explain this lawsuit.

SUSAN BURKE: We were approached by the families of three gentlemen who were shot and killed, as well as a gentleman who was very seriously injured. They came to us because they know of our work representing the torture victims at Abu Ghraib, and they asked us whether it would be possible to try to get some form of justice, some form of accountability, against this rogue corporation.

So we put together a lawsuit that is being filed this morning in federal court in the District of Columbia on behalf of the families of three gentlemen who were killed: Mr. Atban, Mr. Abbass and Mr. Ibraheem The three gentlemen, amongst them, had 14 children, including one, Mr. Atban, had a newborn baby daughter. So, needless to say, we are very interested in holding this company accountable and in pursuing the lawsuit vigorously.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe your understanding of what happened on that day, on September 16?

SUSAN BURKE: My understanding, based on the media reports, as well as on information that we’re receiving from eyewitnesses in Iraq, is that Blackwater essentially began just an unprovoked shooting. And they — one of the first shots fired killed a gentleman whose car — who slumped over, and his head was on the steering wheel, his foot on the accelerator, so the car kept rolling, and that basically led to chaos, where Blackwater was firing indiscriminately around the square. There was one Blackwater guard who apparently tried to stop his colleagues from this wanton and senseless murdering of innocents, but he was not effective in doing so.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And would CCR be working with Iraqi attorneys on the ground there, because I would assume that if this case were to move forward, the issue of being able to recruit witnesses or talk to witnesses would be very difficult, given the war situation there?

SUSAN BURKE: Well, as the situation is now, my firm, Burke O’Neil, and then Shereef Akeel’s firm, Akeel & Valentine, as well as CCR, we actually have a steady presence in Iraq. There are two gentleman that work for us and that have been doing so since June of 2004. So we have the ability, you know, to talk directly to people, to communicate on a daily basis via email.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, your reaction to this lawsuit that has now just been filed?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, this is an incredible development. We have to remember that upwards of a million Iraqis have died since the beginning of the U.S. invasion and the names of the victims of both the US military and these private military companies are almost never reported. And this is the first major case brought by Iraqi civilians against a private military company like Blackwater.

And one of the chilling parts of this lawsuit, as I was reading through the complaint, it says this action seeks punitive damages in an amount sufficient to punish Erik Prince and his Blackwater companies for the repeated callous killing of innocents. We have to remember there are two other major lawsuits against Blackwater right now. One was brought by the families of four Blackwater operatives who were killed in Fallujah; the other was brought by the families of active-duty servicemen who were killed in a Blackwater plane crash in Afghanistan in 2004.

And what Blackwater’s pattern has been is to argue essentially that it can’t be sued, that it should have the same immunity from civilian litigation enjoyed by the U.S. military. In the case of Iraqi victims of Blackwater, the pattern we’ve seen emerging is the State Department facilitating Blackwater, paying thousands of dollars in hush money to the victims’ families. We certainly heard Erik Prince acknowledge that they had paid $20,000 to the family of the bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president, who was allegedly shot and killed by a Blackwater contractor, drunken Blackwater contractor, on Christmas Eve 2006 inside of the Green Zone.

This is a very different scenario now, where you have Iraqi families not seeking some hush money, but actually being willing to put their names to a lawsuit and sue Erik Prince in the most appropriate place, and that is in the United States, which deployed his forces in Iraq.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jeremy, there have been almost now daily reports, new revelations each day, about Blackwater. For instance, CBS reported yesterday that there seems to be no indication that the FBI investigation is actually proceeding, that, in fact, that the car that was shot up in the incident is still sitting there and hasn’t been like impounded or is not being checked for forensic evidence.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, let’s remind people here — and your paper, Juan, the New York Daily News, actually broke an interesting story on this front. The State Department — the initial State Department report on the Nisoor Square shootings was actually written by a Blackwater contractor on official stationery. So, you know, I mean, what’s next here? Is Cofer Black, the vice chairman of Blackwater, he’s going to be the judge that oversees this case? And then, the story I’m referring to in the Daily News was that when the FBI team was going to go over initially to investigate Blackwater, they were going to be guarded by Blackwater, and then they had to back off and then say, “Now, we’re going to be investigating it under the protection of official military sources.” I mean, the State Department and Blackwater have acted as one actor in this thing from the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Burke, what about the issue of whose law does Blackwater abide by, and how does that affect your lawsuit?

SUSAN BURKE: Well, I think one of the interesting things to point out is that the Bremer order, which is widely viewed as immunizing these contractors, actually just says that the Iraqi courts will not have jurisdiction over them. So I think as a practical matter that the general choice of law principles still apply that Iraqi law would apply. But in addition, the conduct that we’re talking about offends and violates the law of every nation. So when we bring the lawsuit here, whether you apply, you know, the law of the District of Columbia or the law of Iraq, you come to the same conclusion: You’re not allowed to gun down innocents.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Susan, the recent shooting by the Australian security firm, where that firm took a decidedly different approach in terms of immediately apologizing and offering compensation, although that still, of course, doesn’t deal with the fact of their actual culpability, but at least it shows a completely different approach than the Blackwater situation.

SUSAN BURKE: Yeah, Blackwater has deliberately and intentionally fostered a real cowboy culture among its employees, and that’s a lot of why it’s important to hold the corporate entities and Erik Prince responsible. This is not the first such incident. I mean, even their own self-reporting, which dramatically underestimates the amount of shootings — but even by their own self-reporting, 84 percent of the shootings occur when Blackwater fires first. So you essentially have a very — you know, a lawless group that is making over a billion dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Burke, explain the Alien Tort Claims Act.

SUSAN BURKE: That is a statute that does not create new causes of action, but simply provides that anything that violates international law is able to be brought here in the United States courts. And what’s interesting to note about our lawsuit is that we bring it under the Alien Tort Statute, but we also bring it under just straight tort law. So there’s actually six counts. The Alien Tort counts are for extrajudicial killing and for war crimes. And then we have the wrongful death, assault and battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, as well as a count for negligent hiring, training and supervision. So the Alien Tort claims is one piece of the legal strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, the law that has just been passed in Congress, the bill, can you explain what it is?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, there was legislation that passed the House overwhelmingly last week that was sponsored by Representative David Price, who’s a Democrat from North Carolina. And there was a — I think because of the Nisoor Square shootings, a lot of Republicans jumped on board with it. The White House is against it. And I think it’s very problematic legislation. It’s being referred to as legislation that would pave the way for contractor accountability and prosecution of the kinds of crimes that we’ve seen committed over the past four years, but there’s actually something quite insidious at play, and that is that what the — because the mercenary industry itself is endorsing the legislation. Blackwater is backing this legislation, because it looks very good on paper, and it’s totally unenforceable.

The Democratic-led plan, which the Republicans are largely endorsing, would have an FBI field office opened up in Baghdad, so that actually U.S. personnel that would be sent over there to monitor the activities of 180,000 contractors. I mean, the military, with its massive bureaucracy, doesn’t even effectively monitor the activities and crimes of its soldiers. And so, what the Democrats are actually doing is giving the mercenary industry a tremendous victory, because they’re further integrating them into the U.S. war machine. And what the Bush administration has done is to double the size of the U.S. occupation through the use of the private sector, and the Democrats are now basically legislating their legitimization.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Burke, what is the chronology of what’s going to happen right now, today? You actually, as we speak, have not yet filed this lawsuit.

SUSAN BURKE: We are filing as the court opens this morning. And then we will our investigation. We’ll continue to be in touch with the people in Iraq and then proceed with regular civil litigation. We anticipate that they’ll try to throw up, as they typically do, various forms of immunities and defenses, but the courts have been holding that Blackwater is not entitled to any of those defenses. So our goal is to try to push this as quickly as possible in order to get a trial for the family members of these unfortunate victims, as well as for the injured Mr. Deewan, who was very seriously injured.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re holding a news conference at the National Press Club today at 10:00 a.m.?

SUSAN BURKE: At 10:00 a.m., yes, we are going to hold a press conference.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Burke, thanks for joining us.

SUSAN BURKE: Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney in Philadelphia working with the Center for Constitutional Rights. They have brought a lawsuit against Blackwater for the September 16th shooting. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to learn about another case, this in Afghanistan, that Jeremy Scahill just talked about. We’re going to turn to a lawyer in Jacksonville, Florida, representing U.S. soldiers killed when they were flying in a Blackwater plane. Stay with us.

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