President Donald Trump has granted a full pardon to 15 people, including four former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left more than a dozen Iraqi civilians dead and caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone.
The others pardoned by Trump on Tuesday include George Papadopoulos, a former campaign aide who pleaded guilty as part of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and two former Republican legislators.
The outgoing president also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, 36, the Dutch son-in-law of Russian billionaire German Khan.
Van der Zwaan was sentenced to 30 days in prison and fined $20,000 for lying to US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators about contacts with an official in Trump’s 2016 campaign.
‘Grotesque’ Blackwater pardon
Supporters of the former contractors at Blackwater Worldwide had lobbied for the pardons, arguing that the men had been excessively punished in an investigation and prosecution they said was tainted. All four were serving lengthy prison sentences.
They were a part of an armoured convoy of vehicles escorting US embassy officials that opened fire at a crowd of unarmed Iraqi civilians.
The incident came to be known as the Nisour Square massacre and marked one of the lowest points of the US-led invasion of Iraq.
At least two of the 14 killed at the time were children.
Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, Dustin Heard and Nicholas Slatten were convicted in 2014 after a months-long trial in Washington’s federal court and each man defiantly asserted his innocence at a sentencing hearing the following year.
Slough, Liberty and Heard were sentenced to 30 years in prison, though after a federal appeals court ordered them to be resentenced, they were each given substantially shorter punishments. Slatten, whom prosecutors blamed for igniting the fight, was sentenced to life in prison.
A federal appeals court later overturned Slatten’s first-degree murder conviction but the justice department tried him again and secured another life sentence last year.
The pardons reflect Trump’s apparent willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to American service members and contractors when it comes to acts of violence in war zones against civilians.
The Blackwater firm was founded by Erik Prince, an ally of Trump and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It has since been renamed.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, decried the pardons.
She said in a statement that the shootings caused “devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States, and a worldwide scandal. President Trump insults the memory of the Iraqi victims and further degrades his office with this action”.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and co-founder of the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald, also criticised the “grotesque” pardon.
“Meanwhile, 2 people who exposed war crimes rather than committied them – Snowden & Assange – wait to see if Trump can find the courage,” Greenwald said in a tweet.
He was referring to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who was charged under the Espionage Act in 2013 with disclosing details of highly classified government surveillance programmes and WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange who is facing extradition to the US from the UK.
Papadopoulos, 33, was an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
He pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to FBI agents about the timing and significance of his contacts with people who claimed to have ties to top Russian officials.
“The defendant’s crime was serious and caused damage to the government’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election,” a sentencing recommendation memo from then-US Special Counsel Robert Mueller had said.
He served 12 days of a 14-day sentence in federal prison, then was placed on a 12-month supervised release.
The White House said Papadopoulos was charged with “a process-related crime, one count of making false statements,” as part of the Mueller probe, which Trump had denounced as a witch hunt.
“Today’s pardon helps correct the wrong that Mueller’s team inflicted on so many people,” the White House said.
Last month, Trump pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the Russia investigation. The Flynn pardon drew condemnation from Democrats and other critics.