[Ppnews] The Ordeal of the Blackwater Protesters

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 29 17:12:27 EST 2008


http://www.counterpunch.org/scahill01292008.html

January 29, 2008


Secret Trials and Criminal Convictions


The Ordeal of the Blackwater Protesters

By JEREMY SCAHILL

Last week in Currituck County, N.C., Superior Court Judge Russell 
Duke presided over the final step in securing the first criminal 
conviction stemming from the deadly actions of Blackwater Worldwide, 
the Bush administration's favorite mercenary company. Lest you think 
you missed some earth-shifting, breaking news, hold on a moment. The 
"criminals" in question were not the armed thugs who gunned down 17 
Iraqi civilians and wounded more than 20 others in Baghdad's Nisour 
Square last September. They were seven nonviolent activists who had 
the audacity to stage a demonstration at the gates of Blackwater's 
7,000-acre private military base in North Carolina to protest the 
actions of mercenaries acting with impunity -- and apparent immunity 
-- in their names and those of every American.

The arrest of the activists and the subsequent five days they spent 
locked up in jail is more punishment than any Blackwater mercenaries 
have received for their deadly actions against Iraqi civilians. "The 
courts pretend that adherence to the law is what makes for an orderly 
and peaceable world," said Steve Baggarly, one of the protest 
organizers. "In fact, U.S. law and courts stand idly by while the 
U.S. military and private armies like Blackwater have killed, maimed, 
brutalized and destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis."

A month after the Nisour Square massacre, on Oct. 20, a group of 
about 50 activists gathered outside Blackwater's gates in Moyock, 
N.C. There, they reenacted the Nisour Square shooting and staged a 
"die-in," involving a vehicle painted with bullet marks and blood. 
The activists stained their clothing with fake blood and dramatized 
the deadly shooting spree. Some of the demonstrators marked 
Blackwater's large welcome sign -- with the company's bear claw in a 
sniper scope logo -- with red hand prints. The demonstrators believed 
these "would be a much more appropriate logo for Blackwater," 
according to Baggarly. "We're all responsible for what is happening 
in Iraq. We all have bloody hands." It took only moments for the 
local police to respond to the protest, the first ever at 
Blackwater's headquarters. In the end, seven were arrested.

The symbolism was stark: Re-enact a Blackwater massacre, go to jail. 
Commit a massacre, walk around freely and perhaps never go to jail. 
All seven were charged with criminal trespassing, six of them with an 
additional charge of resisting arrest and one with another charge of 
injury to real property. "We feel like Blackwater is trespassing in 
Iraq," Baggarly later said. "And as for injuring property, they 
injure men, women and children every day." The activists were jailed 
for five days and eventually released pending trial.

When their day in court arrived, on Dec. 5, the activists intended to 
put Blackwater on trial, something the Justice Department, the 
military and the courts have systematically failed to do. Their 
action at Blackwater, the activists said, was in response to war 
crimes, the killing of civilians and the fact that no legal system -- 
civilian or military -- was holding Blackwater responsible. The 
Nisour Square massacre, they said, "is the Iraq war in microcosm."

But District Court Judge Edgar Barnes would have none of it. So 
outraged was he at Baggarly, the first of the defendants to appear 
before him that day, that the judge cleared the court following his 
conviction. No spectators, no family members, no journalists, no 
defense witnesses remained. The other six activists were tried in 
total secrecy -- well, secret to everyone except the prosecutors, 
sheriffs, government witnesses and one Blackwater official. Judge 
Barnes swiftly tried the remaining six activists behind closed doors 
and convicted them all. It was as though Currituck, N.C., became 
Gitmo for a day.

It's not unusual for a judge to clear a courtroom when there is a 
disruption by the public. Nor is it rare for judges to try to prevent 
activists from turning the tables and attempting to put the 
government -- or in this case a mercenary company -- on trial. But 
witnesses that day report that there was no disruption -- and the 
defendants say they were immediately cut off when they strayed from 
the narrow scope of the trespass charge to discuss Blackwater's 
actions or the war. So why clear the courtroom? That may be a 
question for Judge Barnes in the end, but it's hard not to view his 
conduct through the same veil of secrecy that shrouds all of 
Blackwater's actions -- and the seemingly endless lengths to which 
the Bush administration will go to protect Blackwater.

That was certainly how the activists saw it. "He didn't want people 
influenced by our message," Baggarly said. "There have been hundreds 
of thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq. If we're going to speak 
about that, nobody is allowed to hear it."

The North Carolina chapter of the ACLU quickly stepped in, saying it 
knew of no similar action in any previous criminal trials in the 
state. "It's a clear violation of constitutional rights, not only of 
the defendants but the press and public," said Katy Parker, the 
group's legal director. "They have a right to a public trial, so any 
trial that goes on behind closed doors is a farce." She added, "We 
are very concerned about this reported disrespect for the laws of our 
land by a member of the judiciary, especially in a controversial and 
politically laden case such as this." The ACLU filed a complaint 
against Barnes with the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, 
asking it to investigate him.

The activists appealed their convictions and were back in court last 
week, on Jan. 24, in front of Superior Court Judge Russell Duke. 
Unlike Judge Barnes, Duke allowed the defendants some freedom of 
speech and graciously decided to let the public witness the daylong 
trial. In his statement before the court, Baggarly recalled the story 
of one of the Nisour Square victims he and his fellow activists 
attempted to dramatize in their protest: "Mohammed Hafiz was driving 
four children when Blackwater mercenaries riddled the car with 
bullets. His ten-year-old son Ali was shot in the head. Mohammed had 
to gather up pieces of the child's skull and brains for the burial. 
During one point in the massacre, Blackwater operatives concentrated 
fire on a passenger bus. A small boy fled the bus in terror and was 
shot down as was his mother who ran after him."

The defendents said that they believed no court would hold Blackwater 
responsible for these killings and that, by committing civil 
disobedience on the company's private military base that day, they 
were guided by higher principles, citing the U.S. Constitution and 
the Bible. "U.S. law has immunized Blackwater, both in Iraq and at 
home, allowing it unrestricted license to kill and a five-year reign 
of terror," said Baggarly. The activists invoked the tradition of 
Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and the conveners of the Boston Tea 
Party. "'Made in the U.S.A.' is written all over those bullets that 
are flying all over Baghdad," one of the activists, Bill Streit, told 
the judge. "We're sick at heart about that."

Rather than ignore or dismiss their motivations, Judge Duke engaged 
the defendents in a theological discussion, challenging their 
Biblical interpretation and, at one point, admonishing the activists, 
many of whom are members of the Catholic Worker movement. "I've 
always thought that if you're going to be a follower of Jesus or 
someone who appreciates the Constitution, you can't select the 
portions that you like and disregard the rest," he said. The fact 
that the hearing was held at the same moment that the country was 
remembering the legacy of MLK, who called on his supporters to break 
unjust laws that violated the rights of others, seemed to be lost on 
Judge Duke. Perhaps he should have read Dr. King's "Letter from a 
Birmingham Jail," in which he wrote to other clergy accusing him of 
political extremism:

"[T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust One has not only a 
legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one 
has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with 
St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.' We should never 
forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' Any 
law that degrades human personality is unjust I submit that an 
individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and 
who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse 
the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality 
expressing the highest respect for law."

It was in this tradition that those seven Americans found themselves 
engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at Blackwater's gates last 
October and the very reason they were before Judge Duke last week.

Whether this mattered to him or not, Judge Duke's words were 
interesting, given the religious fanaticism and avowed patriotism of 
Blackwater's owner, Erik Prince. Like the "Blackwater 7," Prince 
considers himself a dedicated Christian and professes his love of 
country. How would Prince answer the judge if faced with a trial for 
the actions of his Blackwater killers in Iraq? How would he reconcile 
the killing of innocents by his men with the teachings of Jesus? What 
would his moral defense sound like?

The sad reality in this country right now -- as it was in Dr. King's 
day -- is that those who really belong before judges are not. 
Prosecutions are sought and secured for activists standing against 
killing and injustice and not for those meting it out. In the end, 
Judge Duke sentenced the activists to time served. It was the 
lightest sentence he could have issued -- but a far greater one than 
any Blackwater mercenary has faced for killing an Iraqi.

For its part, Blackwater issued a statement that would be funny if it 
wasn't so lethally ironic. "Many of the extraordinary professionals 
currently working for Blackwater are veterans who served their 
country in support of -- among other things -- the right to free 
speech and to peacefully protest in accordance with the law," said 
Blackwater spokesperson Anne Tyrrell. "We respect every person's 
right to speak out in support of his or her beliefs, but if laws are 
violated, it is the court system's responsibility to hold them accountable."

Tyrrell is right about one thing: The courts should hold the 
violators of laws accountable. But is that Blackwater's true position 
on its own conduct? Is that the Bush administration's position? No. 
Time and again, Blackwater and the White House have fought against 
having meaningful sanctions applied to mercenary forces. In fact, 
while the trial of the "Blackwater 7" was under way, last week the 
Bush administration was fighting once again to ensure continued 
immunity for Blackwater and other mercenary firms in Iraq. If we 
really were a nation of laws, there would be a lot of Blackwater 
mercenaries behind bars right now facing stiffer penalties than five 
days in jail. And these men would hardly be prisoners of conscience 
like the activists who protested Blackwater's lethal actions in Iraq.

In the end, before Judge Duke sent the activists home, he told them, 
"We're not here about what's happening in Iraq." Tragically for the 
U.S. Constitution and deadly for Iraqi civilians, when it comes to 
Blackwater and other merchants of death, this has been true of the 
American justice system for five years too long.

Jeremy Scahill is author of The New York Times-bestseller 
"<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1560259795/counterpunchmaga>Blackwater: 
The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.". He is a 
Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute. This 
article appears in the current issue of <http://indypendent.org/>The 
Indypendent newspaper. He can be reached at jeremy(AT)democracynow.org




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