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Federal judge rejects jurisdictional challenge by indicted Blackwater guards

[JURIST] A judge in the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] on Tuesday rejected two motions challenging the court's ability to hear the case filed on behalf of five indicted Blackwater USA [corporate website; JURIST news archive] guards involved in the September 2007 killings of 17 Iraqi civilians [JURIST report]. Lawyers for the defendants asserted that the proceedings should be held in Utah court, contrary to a December order from a federal magistrate judge in Salt Lake City agreeing with the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] that the case should remain in the District of Columbia [JURIST report]. The defendants also argued that because charges under Section 3261 of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) [text] can only be brought against military contractors "to the extent [their] employment relates to supporting the mission of the Department of Defense overseas," the defendants' duties of providing security for US Department of State officials fell outside the statute. Judge Ricardo Urbina denied the motions to dismiss, declaring that jurisdiction lies in the District of Columbia, and reserving for trial the issue of whether the defendants engaged in military support. The trial is currently set for February 2010.

The five guards were indicted [text, PDF; JURIST report] in December on charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempt to commit manslaughter, and using and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, which carries a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence. The guards pleaded not guilty [JURIST report] in January. A sixth guard pleaded guilty [text, PDF] to charges of voluntary manslaughter and attempt to commit manslaughter for his role in the same incident. In January, the newly implemented Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) [CFR materials; McClatchy translation] gave Iraq full autonomy to decide which private security forces may operate there, and an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman announced last month that the country would not renew its contract [JURIST report] with Blackwater Worldwide [corporate website] due to the September 2007 incident. Soon after, the US State Department announced that it will not renew its contract with Blackwater Worldwide [JURIST report] to protect American diplomats in Iraq when it expires in May.

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