Two guards working for Xe Services, the company formerly known as Blackwater, were arrested Thursday on murder charges following a shootout after a car accident in Afghanistan last year.
If convicted, the two could face the death penalty.
The arrests came the same day as Blackwater settled seven civil lawsuits related to numerous incidents of violence in Iraq over several years, including the infamous Nissour Square massacre in 2007 that took the lives of 17 people.
The settlements "amount to an implicit admission by the highly secretive company that some of its guards were responsible for a series of unjustifiable killings," reports The Guardian. "Blackwater appears to have reached the deal in order to avoid a court hearing that threatened to force the company to lay bare what critics contend was a policy of shooting first as well as the involvement of its employees in an array of criminal activities."
The two Blackwater guards arrested Thursday -- 27-year-old Justin Cannon and 29-year-old Chris Drotleff -- maintain that "they were justified in opening fire on a car that caused an accident in front of their vehicle, then turned and sped toward them after they got out to help," the Associated Press reports.
The shooting, which took place on May 5, 2009, killed two men and injured another, according to the indictment filed against Cannon and Drotleff. Both of the arrested men worked for Paravant, a subsidary of Xe Services, which is what Blackwater renamed itself after a slew of bad publicity. They were tasked with training Afghan soldiers and maintaining weapons system. The US Attorney's office in eastern Virginia is prosecuting the case.
The seven lawsuits Blackwater settled out of court Thursday involve numerous allegations of wrongful death at the hands of the company's employees, including one lawsuit that claimed CEO Erik Prince "personally directed and permitted a heavily-armed private army ... to roam the streets of Baghdad killing innocent civilians."
Another lawsuit claimed that Prince and his subordinates "murdered, or had murdered, one or more persons who had provided information, or who were planning to provide information, to the federal authorities about the ongoing criminal conduct."
According to al-Jazeera English, the suit settlements came out of a meeting between Blackwater lawyers and the families of alleged Blackwater victims in a Baghdad hotel room last week.
But not all the plaintiffs are happy with the results of those negotiations. Sami Hawas Hamoud Abu al-Iz, whose mother was killed in the Nissour Square shooting, and who himself, along with his son, was wounded in the incident, told the Associated Press that plaintiffs agreed to the settlements under pressure.
"All the victims' families signed the settlement papers under pressure, after we were informed that the Blackwater firm is broke and if you don't sign, you will get nothing," AP quoted him as saying.
He told AP that the firm offered $100,000 for each person who died, and $30,000 for each person injured in one of the many violent incidents in which the company is implicated.
Those numbers were confirmed by reporter Jeremy Scahill, a renowned sleuth of all things Blackwater, who reported:
Two sources with inside knowledge of Blackwater’s settlement with Iraqi victims of a string of shootings, including the Nisour Square massacre, have confirmed to me that Blackwater is paying $100,000 for each of the Iraqis killed by its forces and between $20-30,000 to each Iraqi wounded. One source said it was “an absolute bargain” for Blackwater. Based on the number of dead and injured named in the civil lawsuits, the total amount paid by Blackwater is likely in the range of $5 million. Blackwater has made more than $1.5 billion in “security” contracts in Iraq alone since 2003.
Last week, a US District Court judge dismissed the charges against five Blackwater employees in the Nissour Square incident. Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled that prosecutors had violated the defendants' rights by using as evidence testimony they gave to the State Department, for which the department had offered the guards immunity.
Since then, outraged Iraqi politicians have promised to pursue justice in the case. The Iraqi government filed a lawsuit against Blackwater on Monday.
-- With Agence France-Presse