In this Dec. 31, 2020, file photo pardoned Blackwater contractor Evan Liberty poses for a photo in Washington. Liberty is one of four former Blackwater contractors pardoned by President Donald Trump in one of his final acts in office, wiping away their convictions in a 2007 shooting rampage in Baghdad that killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians. The pardons were met with intense condemnation both in the United States and the Middle East. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

After pardon, Blackwater guard defiant: ‘I acted correctly’

WASHINGTON — Evan Liberty was reading in the top bunk of his cell one evening late last month when a prison supervisor delivered news he had hoped for.

“He says, ‘Are you ready for this?’” Liberty recalled. “I said, ‘Uh, I’m not sure. What is going on?’ He said, ‘Presidential pardon. Pack your stuff.’”

Liberty is one of four former Blackwater contractors pardoned by President Donald Trump in one of Trump’s final acts in office, freeing them from prison after a 2007 shooting rampage in Baghdad that killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians. Even for a president who has repeatedly exercised his pardon power on personal associates and political supporters, Trump’s clemency for the contractors was met with especially intense condemnation, both in the United States and the Middle East.

Historically, presidential pardons have been reserved for nonviolent crimes, not manslaughter or murder, and the traditional process led by the Justice Department values acceptance of responsibility and remorse from those convicted of crimes. The Blackwater contractors meet none of those criteria. They were convicted in the killings of unarmed Iraqi women and children and have long been defiant in their assertions of innocence.

In an interview with The Associated Press, his first since being released from prison, Liberty again expressed little remorse for actions he says were defensible given the context.

“I feel like I acted correctly,” he said of his conduct in 2007. “I regret any innocent loss of life, but I’m just confident in how I acted and I can basically feel peace with that.”

The Blackwater rampage marked one of the darkest chapters of the Iraq war, staining the U.S. government reputation and prompting an international outcry about the role of contractors in military zones. The guards have long maintained they were targeted by insurgent gunfire at the traffic circle where the shooting occurred. Prosecutors argued there was no evidence to support that claim, noting that many victims were shot while in their cars or while taking shelter or trying to flee.

After a monthslong trial in 2014, a jury convicted the men in the deaths of 14 civilians and of injuring even more. A judge called the shootings an “overall wild thing” that cannot be condoned.

Liberty said he understands many may view him undeserving of clemency but attributes it to what he insists is a misguided narrative of the shooting. In the interview, he maintained that he did not shoot in the direction of any of the victims. “I didn’t shoot at anybody that wasn’t shooting at me,” he said.

He said he and the others would “never take an innocent life. We responded to a threat accordingly.”

Liberty, whose 30-year sentence was cut by roughly half last year, isn’t certain how he came to be pardoned and said he has not spoken with Trump. But the group does have supporters, some with ties to the White House. The Blackwater firm, whose name has since changed, was founded by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, a Trump ally whose sister, Betsy DeVos, is education secretary. Their cause also was championed by Fox News personality Pete Hegseth, an Army veteran.

Trump’s approach to pardons have been heavily influenced by personal appeals from allies. Throughout his presidency, including in his most recent round of pardons, he’s wiped away punishments for political backers, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and a pair of Republican congressmen who were early supporters of his 2016 campaign. Trump has also shown a willingness to intervene on behalf of service members accused of war crimes.

In announcing the Blackwater pardons, the White House cited the men’s military service, the support they received and the tangled history of a case that zigzagged for years in Washington’s federal court, turning on radically different interpretations of the shooting.

Criticism was swift. A Washington Post editorial called the pardons a “unique threat to national security” and suggested the guards had committed “astonishing acts of inhumanity.” Iraqi citizens described old wounds being reopened. Soon after the announcement, a photograph of a 9-year-old victim in a blue-patterned shirt smiling faintly circulated widely online. The boy’s father told the BBC that Trump “broke my life again.”

“They haven’t denied doing what they did,” said Paul Dickinson, who represented victims in a lawsuit over the shootings. “They haven’t apologized for what they did. They haven’t admitted any wrongdoing in what they did.”

Blackwater guards, who as State Department contractors were responsible for providing diplomatic security, were already seen as operating with impunity in Iraq. The rampage further escalated international scrutiny of them, prompted multiple investigations and strained U.S.-Iraqi relations.

On Sept. 16, 2007, the guards were summoned to create an evacuation route for a diplomat after a car bomb explosion.

By prosecutors’ account, the shooting began after the guards’ four-vehicle convoy took up positions at Baghdad’s crowded Nisour Square, where the contractors launched an unprovoked attack using sniper fire, machine-guns and grenade launchers. Liberty says he shot only in the direction of an Iraqi police post; the guards had been concerned by infiltration by insurgents of police ranks. Prosecutors say he and the others fired indiscriminately.

Defence lawyers say the shooting began only after a white Kia broke from the traffic and moved toward the convoy in ways the guards perceived as a threat and a potential car bomb. In a narrative disputed by prosecutors, the guards say they responded to insurgent gunfire. One contractor who received immunity described hearing the incoming “pop” of what sounded like AK-47 rounds shortly before another guard fired.

The case was bitterly contested for more than a decade, with the Justice Department reviving the prosecution after an original indictment was thrown out because of government missteps and flying in dozens of Iraqi witnesses to testify. Liberty and two others, Paul Slough and Dustin Heard, were convicted of manslaughter. Another, Nicholas Slatten, was convicted of first-degree murder.

A fifth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty and testified against the others, admitting firing multiple rounds into the Kia — which actually contained a medical student and his mother — but denied that he saw Iraqis pointing guns or that he felt threatened. Defence lawyers sought to undercut his credibility by noting that he’d previously told a different story.

The lawyers challenged the verdict, citing in part newly discovered evidence — an Iraqi witness statement — they said contradicted what the jury was told.

Slatten’s murder conviction was overturned but he was retried and convicted. The 30-year sentences for the others were shortened after a federal appeals court said the punishments were excessive even though what happened “defies civilized description.”

After six years behind bars, Liberty had tried to not get his hopes up about a pardon. “Dumbfounded” when the news came, he grabbed a photograph of his grandfather, a list of Spanish vocabulary he’d been studying and a motivational book on discipline, leaving the rest behind.

The New Hampshire native and Marine veteran said he is uncertain of future plans, though he’s passionate about physical fitness and interested in helping veterans’ organizations. He says he’s grateful to his supporters and to Trump for what he calls a “second chance at life.”

“I feel like it’s my duty to go out and do something positive and live a good life because they gave me a second chance, so that’s basically my goal.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Police have charged two men after they allegedly tried to break into the Bentley post office with a semi. (Photo courtesy of RCMP)
Red Deer men charged in Bentley post office destruction

Police have charged a pair of Red Deer men after an attempted… Continue reading

Red Deer Fire Chief Ken McMullen remains concerned about “inconsistencies” in the province’s new way of dispatching local ambulances. (Advocate file photo).
A few glitches are already noticed in Red Deer’s new ambulance dispatch system

Local fire-medics need more data about ambulance arrival times

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the province still hopes to bring the hospitalization number down before relaxing restrictions. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
14 new deaths, 366 new COVID-19 cases in Alberta

Province nearing 100K COVID-19 vaccine doses administered

Cervus Equipment is planning to set up a new location near Highways 2 and 42 in Red Deer County. Graphic contributed
Cervus Equipment eyeing new Red Deer County location

Farm equipment busy looking to set up near Highways 2 and 42

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

‘Stories the numbers tell’: Critics ask why Alberta sat on coal contamination data

‘Stories the numbers tell’: Critics ask why Alberta sat on coal contamination data

This undated photo provided by the Polk County Sheriff's Office, in Florida, shows Joshua Colon. On Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, officials said that Colon, who had been recently named “Paramedic of the Year,” helped a supervisor steal COVID-19 vaccines meant for first responders. (Polk County Sheriff's Office via AP)
‘Paramedic of the Year’ accused of helping to steal vaccine

‘Paramedic of the Year’ accused of helping to steal vaccine

FILE - In this July 31, 2019, file photo, migrants return to Mexico, using the Puerta Mexico bridge that crosses the Rio Grande river in Matamoros, Mexico, on the border with Brownsville, Texas. A federal judge on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, barred the U.S. government from enforcing a 100-day deportation moratorium that is a key immigration priority of President Joe Biden. U.S. District Judge Drew Tipton issued a temporary restraining order sought by Texas, which sued on Friday against a Department of Homeland Security memo that instructed immigration agencies to pause most deportations. Tipton said the Biden administration had failed “to provide any concrete, reasonable justification for a 100-day pause on deportations.” (AP Photo/Emilio Espejel, File)
Judge bars Biden from enforcing 100-day deportation ban

Judge bars Biden from enforcing 100-day deportation ban

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2021, file photo, registered Nurse Shyun Lin, left, administers Alda Maxis, 70, the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in the William Reid Apartments in the Brooklyn borough of New York. An increasing number of COVID-19 vaccination sites around the U.S. are canceling appointments because of vaccine shortages in a rollout so rife with confusion and unexplained bottlenecks. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, Pool, File)
US boosting vaccine deliveries amid complaints of shortages

US boosting vaccine deliveries amid complaints of shortages

In this image from video, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the president pro tempore of the Senate, who is presiding over the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, swears in members of the Senate for the impeachment trial at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (Senate Television via AP)
GOP largely sides against holding Trump impeachment trial

GOP largely sides against holding Trump impeachment trial

People make their way through floodwaters in Beira Mozambique, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. The Mozambican port city of Beira breathed a sigh of relief as Cyclone Eloise caused less damage than feared as it passed through, but the danger of flooding remained in a region still recovering from a devastating cyclone two years ago. (AP Photo)
UN: 250,000 people affected by Cyclone Eloise in Mozambique

UN: 250,000 people affected by Cyclone Eloise in Mozambique

This image released by the Sundance Institute shows Rita Moreno in a scene from "Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It," an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Sundance Institute via AP)
With many hungry for content, Sundance market heats up

With many hungry for content, Sundance market heats up

FILE - Actor Danny Huston attends the National Board of Review awards gala in New York on Jan. 8, 2019. Growing up in Ireland, one of his favorite memories was when his father, director John Huston, would bring out the projector and they’d gather around to watch his films. “The Maltese Falcon” was always a highlight. Now the film is celebrating its 80th anniversary. It’s returning to theaters through Fathom Events for a limited engagement on Wednesday. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
‘The Maltese Falcon’ returns to theatres at ripe age of 80

‘The Maltese Falcon’ returns to theatres at ripe age of 80

Most Read