Katherine Zoepf & Anwar J. Ali / The New York Times – 2008-12-16 00:37:31
BAGHDAD (December 14, 2008) — American prosecutors met Saturday with victims’ families and survivors of the September 2007 shootings of Iraqi civilians by private security guards employed by Blackwater Worldwide.
About 50 Iraqis gathered at National Police Headquarters, just a few hundred yards from where the shootings happened, to meet with Kenneth Kohl, a prosecutor in the criminal case against the Blackwater guards.
Though many victims have been interviewed by the F.B.I. as part of the investigation, the meeting was the first time they had been brought together so that prosecutors could inform them about the investigation and their rights under American law.
Last week, when five Blackwater guards were indicted in connection with the shootings and a sixth guard negotiated a plea deal, the United States Justice Department announced that it would be sending representatives to Baghdad. It did not fully explain the purpose of the visit, though the department said that witnesses would be brought from Iraq to testify at the trial.
“Our investigation does continue,” Mr. Kohl, an assistant United States attorney for the District of Columbia, said Saturday to the Iraqis, many of them clutching sheafs of hospital paperwork and X-rays documenting their or their relatives’ injuries.
He said that there would be a trial in the United States, and that if the defendants were convicted on all counts, they would face at least 30 years, and perhaps life, in prison. “But I do wish to emphasize that the sentence is a matter left to the judge,” he said.
Several Iraqi victims said they were startled to have been contacted by the Americans.
“It’s an old case, and I had lost hope,” said Jassem Mohammed Hashem, a 29-year-old former policeman who has been on disability since being shot in the head by a Blackwater guard while he stood at his post. “But now it seems the American administration will give us our rights.”
Mr. Hashem, who has a divot about half the size of an egg on the right side of his forehead, said that to save his life he had needed to undergo several operations. He still suffers from debilitating headaches, he said, as well as uncontrollable mood swings that have seriously affected his family relationships.
“I am so worried for my children,” Mr. Hashem said. “My daughter is 5 and my son is 2 months old. I’m always in a bad mood, and I get very aggressive sometimes. I was never like this before. I lost my health on that day. I lost my job. I’m only 29, but I’m on disability and will probably have to retire.”
A woman who identified herself as Umm Ghaith, whose husband, Hammoud Said Attah, a 32-year-old taxi driver, was killed in the shootings, said that until she received a call four days before informing her of the meeting, she had heard nothing about the investigation.
“Till now I don’t know what to expect, but I really wish justice will take place,” she said at the gathering, accompanied by her six young children and her sister-in-law, whose husband was also killed. “I think we will probably file a suit against Blackwater — it’s the right of my children.”
Reporters were asked to leave the room after Mr. Kohl’s opening remarks. But when Umm Ghaith was contacted by telephone later in the afternoon, she described the meeting, which lasted about five and a half hours, as confusing and disappointing.
“Every time we asked about something, they tried to avoid it,” she said, adding, “People started getting upset, and many victims and their relatives said that it was all useless and we came here for nothing.”
But an Iraqi official who was at the meeting, and who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said that many victims’ family members had been disappointed simply because they were unfamiliar with American legal procedures.
“It was a very good meeting,” the official said. “The prosecutors invited the victims’ relatives and those who were wounded to attend the trials in the United States. But the people did not get paid today, and that’s why they got upset.”
Reporting was contributed by Timothy Williams, Abeer Mohammed, Tareq Maher, Mudhafer al-Husaini and Suadad al-Salhy from Baghdad, and Ginger Thompson from Washington.
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