WASHINGTON — A US appeals court met behind closed doors Tuesday as the government appealed a judge's decision to clear five former guards with security company Blackwater of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007.
The three appeals court judges agreed to a request from all sides for the hearing into the controversial case to be closed to the public. A ruling is not expected for three months.
Charges against the Blackwater employees were dismissed last year, when a judge ruled US prosecutors violated the guards' rights by using incriminating statements they had made under immunity during a State Department probe.
The ruling outraged the Baghdad government which maintains that 17 people were killed. Twenty people were also wounded.
In his ruling on December 31, 2009, judge Ricardo Urbina said prosecutors violated the defendants' rights by using incriminating statements they had made under immunity during a State Department probe to build their case.
"The government used the defendants' compelled statements to guide its charging decisions, to formulate its theory of the case, to develop investigatory leads, and ultimately to obtain the indictment in the case," Urbina ruled.
After several months of reflection, the US administration said it would call for the case to be reopened, according to court documents.
It urged the court to rule "whether in light of the overwhelming untainted evidence presented to the grand jury" the case could continue in the courts.
The five guards, who had been part of a convoy of armored vehicles, had been charged with killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians during an unprovoked attack on September 16, 2007 at a busy Baghdad traffic circle using gunfire and grenades.
Witnesses said the Blackwater guards fired on the civilians in an unprovoked attack.
A sixth employee of Blackwater, which is now known as Xe, pleaded guilty in December to attempted homicide.
The Iraqi government has filed a lawsuit against Xe in a US court and was planning to file another in Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in January.
The case was among the most sensational that sought to hold Blackwater employees accountable for what was seen as a culture of lawlessness and lack of accountability in the company's Iraqi operations.
Blackwater was then the largest private security firm employed by the Americans in Iraq, but it pulled out of the country in May after the government refused to renew its contracts.
It has always maintained that its guards opened fire in self-defense.