The US security company Blackwater agreed today to pay compensation over the killing of Iraqi civilians by company guards accused of reckless disregard for human life.
The deal comes just days after a US court threw out the prosecution of five of those guards over a notorious slaughter of up to 17 people in Baghdad.
The settlement amounts to an implicit admission by the highly secretive company that some of its guards were responsible for a series of unjustifiable killings. Blackwater appears to have reached the deal in order to avoid a court hearing that threatened to force the company to lay bear what critics contend was a policy of shooting first as well as the involvement of its employees in an array of criminal activities.
Blackwater, which has since renamed itself Xe after a deluge of bad publicity over its actions in Iraq, did not release details of the settlement of seven lawsuits that accused the company of a pattern of illegal activity and reckless killings.
The lawsuits accuse Blackwater's founder, Erik Prince, a former member of Navy special forces, of running a private army that "roamed the streets of Baghdad killing innocent civilians".
Among the cases was a lawsuit over the killing of three members of an Iraqi family, including a nine-year-old boy, when Blackwater guards opened fire on their car as they drove to Baghdad airport in July 2007.
Other lawsuits filed by the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York related to the killing of an Iraqi guard and the shooting dead of three people guarding the state-run Iraqi Media Network by a Blackwater sniper. The Iraqi police called the shootings an "act of terrorism".
The highest profile case was on behalf of the families of three of up to 17 Iraqis killed by Blackwater guards in Baghdad's Nisoor square in 2007.
Five Blackwater guards were prosecuted in the US over the killings but a judge threw out the charges on procedural grounds, including that the accused men had been forced to incriminate themselves. The guards could not be prosecuted in Iraq because of an immunity agreement imposed by Washington on the interim administration in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion.
The decision has led to accusations that Blackwater was effectively operating outside of the law which contributed to a climate of impunity and reckless use of weapons. The company has since been barred from the country by the Iraqi government.
Critics allege that US officials contributed to the climate of impunity by protecting Blackwater guards responsible for evidently illegal killings. Those include the shooting dead three years ago of an Iraqi security guard to the country's vice-president while he was on duty at the prime minister's compound. The Iraqi government alleges that the guard was shot by a drunken Blackwater employee who was then spirited out of the country by the US state department which attempted to keep his identity secret.
The Iraqi government said on Monday that it will launch its own lawsuits against Blackwater in US and Iraqi courts.
The legal action settled today also included allegations that the company's aircraft were used to abduct Iraqis and that Blackwater workers were involved in weapons smuggling, illegal drug use and bringing young girls to the company's compound in Baghdad for paid sex.
Blackwater said it was "pleased" with the settlement which it said "provides some compensation to Iraqi families".
The company is still facing legal action by the families of some of its own workers killed in Iraq, including four who died in Fallujah five years ago. The families are seeking full disclosure of the circumstances of the deaths of sons and husbands which they say Blackwater has refused to disclose. The relatives of four US soldiers killed on a Blackwater plane in Iraq are seeking compensation after accusing the company of negligence.
Despite Blackwater's contentious record, the US military and intelligence agencies continue to maintain a close relationship with the company. Two of the CIA workers killed in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan last week were private contractors with Blackwater.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.