A United States federal judge on Friday dismissed criminal charges against five guards of Blackwater security firm, who were accused of killing 17 civilians in Baghdad in an incident that sparked widespread criticism of the army's use of private contractors.
US district judge Ricardo Urbina threw out the case not on merit but on the way the prosecutors had handled it by wrongly using defendants' 'statements compelled under a threat of job loss'.
The judge said using such 'compelled statements', which were given with a promise of immunity, is a violation under the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.
"The burden fell to the government to prove that it made no use whatsoever of these immunised statements," Judge Urbina wrote in a 90-page opinion.
"Explanations offered by prosecutors and investigators in an attempt to justify their actions and persuade the court that they did not use the defendants' compelled testimony were all too often contradictory, unbelievable and lacking in credibility," he added.
Acting at the time under a contract from the State Department, Blackwater, now called Xe, became infamous in September 2007 when its guards opened fire while escorting US diplomats through one of Baghdad's main markets, killing 17 Iraqis, in one of the most provocative incidents of the US invasion.
Tensions between US and Iraq escalated after the shooting as the security company denied any wrongdoing and claimed that they were reacting to insurgents. The five defendants, Paul Slough, Nicholas Slatten, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Donald Ball, had pleaded not guilty.
A sixth Blackwater guard had pleaded guilty and was cooperating with the government in the investigation. Since then, several investigations conducted by US authorities have found that the killings were unjustified, and the defendants were charged with voluntary manslaughter and firearms violations.
Noting that the government trial team had repeatedly disregarded advice of senior prosecutors, Judge Urbina wrote, "In their zeal to bring charges against the defendant in this case, the prosecutors and investigators aggressively sought out statements the defendants had been compelled to make to government investigators in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and in the subsequent investigation".
"In short, government has utterly failed to prove that it made no impermissible use of defendants' statements or that such use was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt," he noted.
Mark Hulwater, a defense lawyer for Slough said, "We are very gratified by the judge's thoughtful and reasoned opinion and we are very happy that Slough can start the New Year without this cloud hanging over his head".
The US Justice Department has its disappointment with the decisions and was assessing further options. The trial was set to begin by the end of January in 2010.