Washington, April 14: One by one, four former Blackwater security contractors wearing blue jumpsuits and leg irons stood before a federal judge today and spoke publicly for the first time since a deadly 2007 shooting in Iraq.
The men had been among several private American security guards who fired into Baghdad's crowded Nisour Square on September 16, 2007, and last October they were convicted of killing 14 unarmed Iraqis in what prosecutors called a wartime atrocity.
Yet yesterday, as they awaited sentences that they knew would send them to prison for most if not all of their lives, they defiantly asserted their innocence.
"I know for a fact that I will be exonerated, in this life and the next," said Paul A. Slough.
"I am very sorry for the loss of life," Dustin L. Heard said. "But I cannot say in all honesty to the court that I believe I did anything wrong."
"As God is my witness," Evan S. Liberty said, he fired only at insurgents who were shooting at him.
"The verdict is wrong," said Nicholas A. Slatten, a former army sniper who was convicted of murder for starting the melee with a precision shot through the head of a young man stopped at an intersection. "You know I am innocent, sir."
The judge, Royce C. Lamberth, strongly disagreed, sentencing Slatten to life in prison and handing 30-year sentences to the three others. A fifth former guard, Jeremy P. Ridgeway of California, had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and testified against his former colleagues. He has not been sentenced but testified that he hoped to avoid any prison time.
The ruling ended a long investigation into the Nisour Square shooting, a signature, gruesome moment in the Iraq war that highlighted America's reliance on private contractors to maintain security in combat zones.
No such company was more powerful than Blackwater, which won more than $1 billion in government contracts. Its employees, most of them military veterans, protected American diplomats overseas and became enmeshed in the CIA's clandestine counterterrorism operations. Its founder, Erik Prince, was a major donor to the Republican Party.
In Iraq, Blackwater was perceived as so powerful that its employees could kill anyone and get away with it, said Mohammed Hafedh Abdulrazzaq Kinani, whose 9-year-old son, Ali, was killed in Nisour Square.
"Blackwater had power like Saddam Hussein," Kinani said in a long, emotional appeal to the judge yesterday. "The power comes from the United States." He added later: "Today we see who will win. The law? Or Blackwater?"
Nearly 100 supporters crowded the large courtroom, many of them wearing Blackwater shirts. Friends, relatives and former military friends spoke on behalf of the four men, describing them, through tears, as patriotic, small-town men who deeply loved their families and their country.
Judge Lamberth, a former captain in the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps, was also moved. He choked up as he described the defendants as "good young men who've never been in trouble, who served their country". But he said the wild, unprovoked shooting "just cannot ever be condoned by a court".
The sentences were a long-fought diplomatic victory for the US, which asked a sceptical Iraqi government and its people to be patient and trust the American criminal justice system.