Prosecution of five Blackwater employees could be thrown out over immunized statements

A US District Court judge has barred the public from attending -- or the media from reporting on -- hearings in the trial of five Blackwater employees charged over the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad's Nisoor Square in 2007.

A breaking story at the Washington Post reports that hearings to determine whether evidence against the accused was properly collected will be kept under wraps.

At issue are statements the State Department collected from Blackwater immediately after the incident. In exchange for the employees' co-operation, the State Department, then under the control of the Bush administration, granted the Blackwater guards immunity from prosecution over their statements.

The current case being pursued by the Justice Department is being crafted so as to avoid using the immunized statements. But Judge Urbina ordered hearings into whether those statements were used to gather evidence after all. If it turns out they were, the judge will likely throw out the case against the five Blackwater employees, the Post reports.

The Nisoor Square massacre took place on September 17, 2007, when Blackwater guards escorting a State Department convoy through Baghdad opened fire on civilians in Nisoor Square, in what is largely considered an unprovoked act. Evidently the Blackwater guards started firing when a civilian vehicle was spotted driving down the wrong side of the road near the convoy.

The Post reports:

The five guards -- Paul Slough, Nicholas Slatten, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Donald Ball -- are charged with voluntary manslaughter and weapons violations in the killing of 14 civilians and the wounding [of] 20 others. The Justice Department alleges that the guards unleashed an unprovoked attack on Iraqi civilians in Nisoor Square while in a convoy. One guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against the others.

The proceedings underway in the District's federal court, known as Kastigar hearings, will probe how well investigators gathered evidence without being tainted by those immunized statements. If the judge finds the government's case is tainted, he might be forced to throw out the indictment.

The State Department canceled its Iraq security contract with Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, shortly after President Obama's inauguration. The Post reported at the time that the company had made $1.3 billion from contracts with the State Department.