By Sam Hananel, AP
WASHINGTON — Defense lawyers in the United States are vowing to appeal the convictions of four former Blackwater security guards after a federal judge handed down lengthy prison terms for their roles in a 2007 shooting of unarmed civilians in Iraq.
Attorneys identified several issues Monday as likely forming the basis of an appeal, including vindictive prosecution and whether State Department contractors could be charged under a federal law that covers the overseas crimes of Defense Department civilian employees.
The move comes after U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth sentenced former guard Nicholas Slatten to life in prison and three others to 30-year terms for their roles in the shootings that killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 17 others in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square.
Slatten, who witnesses said was the first to fire shots in the melee, was sentenced to life after being convicted last October of first-degree murder. The three other guards �X Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard �X were each sentenced to 30 years and one day in prison for charges that included manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using firearms while committing a felony.
The incident strained U.S.-Iraq relations and caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone.
Lamberth announced the sentences after a daylong hearing at which defense lawyers had argued for leniency and presented character witnesses for their clients. At the same time, prosecutors asked that those sentences �X the minimums mandatory under the law �X be made even harsher. He rejected both requests.
Appearing in court wearing leg shackles and prison garb, the former contractors insisted they were innocent.
But Lamberth said he fully agreed with the jury’s guilty verdicts and praised the Justice Department and the FBI for investigating the shooting and putting the truth ��out there for the world to see.��
Nearly 100 friends and relatives packed the courtroom to show support for the men, with many openly weeping throughout the proceedings. Several came to the podium, some choking back tears, to speak glowingly of the men they knew as role models and patriots who only wanted to help serve their country.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Martin described the shooting as an unprovoked ambush of civilians and said the men haven’t shown remorse or taken responsibility. Defense lawyers countered that the men were targeted with gunfire and shot back in self-defense with guns the State Department had provided them for safety.
Mohammad Kinani Al-Razzaq spoke in halting English about the death of his 9-year-old son as a picture of the smiling boy, Ali Mohammed Hafedh Abdul Razzaq, was shown on courtroom monitors. He demanded the court show Blackwater ��what the law is.��
Defense lawyers also argued for mercy, saying decades-long sentences would be unconstitutionally harsh for men who operated in a stressful, war-torn environment and who have proud military careers and close family ties.