Will charges against Blackwater guards stick?

The most important question may not be their guilt or innocence in the shooting of Iraqi civilians, but whether they're even subject to U.S. law.

Published December 8, 2008 7:15PM (EST)

Five Blackwater security guards have surrendered to federal authorities after they were indicted on charges relating to a 2007 incident that left 17 Iraqis dead. A sixth has already agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors.

The Associated Press reports that defense attorneys are already "filing court documents challenging the Justice Department's authority to prosecute the case." This isn't surprising. In a 2007 article, Salon's Mark Benjamin and I explored the legal limbo that was created in Iraq for private security guards like the ones charged Monday. "We've painted ourselves in a corner," Peter W. Singer, an expert on private security contractors who is a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institute explained at the time. Many questions remain about who -- if anyone -- has jurisdiction over these guards, and whether they can legally be prosecuted at all. This case may end up as an important test, and could have larger implications for contractors in Iraq and elsewhere.

The five guards are each charged with 14 counts of manslaughter and 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, as well as with using a machine gun to commit a crime of violence. According to the AP, that last charge carries a 30-year minimum prison sentence.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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