[JURIST] The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] has indicted five Blackwater USA [corporate website; JURIST news archive] guards involved in the September 2007 killings of 17 Iraqi civilians [JURIST report], according to reports. The Associated Press reported that sealed indictments [AP report] were issued Thursday, and will remain sealed until at least Monday. While the indictments had been expected to contain charges under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) [text], the New York Times says the five indicted Blackwater guards will be charged [NYT report] under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 [LOC backgrounder], which requires a minimum 30-year sentence for the use of a machine gun in connection with a crime. If the guards are indicted under the MEJA, it would mark the first time that State Department contractors were prosecuted under the law, which allows criminal charges to be filed against contractors working for the Department of Defense.
The Blackwater incident caused domestic outrage in Iraq and has prompted legal controversy in the US. In November, the New York Times and the Washington Post [reports] reported that an Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation into the incident concluded that the shootings were unjustified [JURIST report], and last month Bush administration officials announced that Iraq security contractors would be losing immunity from Iraqi law under the recently approved [JURIST reports] US Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq. Human Rights First [advocacy website] issued a report [text, PDF] in January asserting that existing federal law is sufficient to prosecute private contractors using excessive violence in their overseas capacities, and that the US government is to blame for failing to "develop a clear policy with respect to the accountability of private contractors for crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan." The report says that the MEJA could be extended to State Department contractors, but that the US has failed to do so.