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Blackwater security guards released on their own recognizance

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Five guards working for the private security contractor Blackwater Worldwide were released on their own recognizance by a federal judge today and will next appear in court in Washington, D.C.

The rulings came this afternoon when the five men — one of them from Utah — surrendered at the U.S. District courthouse in Salt Lake City ahead of a 35-count indictment accusing them of killing 14 unarmed Iraqis and wounding 20 others in September 2007. A federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted the men on charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempt to commit manslaughter, using a gun in a crime of violence and aiding and abetting.

A judge declined to hold a hearing on a defense motion urging the establishment of probable cause, noting that a grand jury in Washington, D.C., had already indicted the men. The judge also refused to hear a defense motion challenging the federal court's jurisdiction in the matter because the alleged crimes happened in Iraq.

Four of the men were ordered to surrender their weapons. The exception was Donald Wayne Ball of West Valley City. He works as a bailiff in Salt Lake City's Justice Court.

Ball's attorney, Steven McCool, said in court this afternoon, "these charges, we will fight them at every turn."

Earlier in the day, as they walked into the federal courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City to surrender, a heckler across the street shouted: "Baby killers!"

"He is beyond innocent," defense attorney Thomas Connolly said of his client, Nick Slatten, as he walked into the courthouse. The men all said nothing as they walked inside.

Indicted are:

• Ball, 26, a former Marine from West Valley City.

• Nicholas Abram Slatten, 24, a former Army sergeant from Sparta, Tenn.

• Paul Alvin Slough, 29, of Keller, Texas, who served in the Army.

• Dustin Laurent Heard, 27, a former Marine from Knoxville, Tenn.

• Evan Shawn Liberty, 26, a former Marine from Rochester, N.H.

Another man, Jeremy P. Ridgeway, 35, of California, pleaded guilty in Washington D.C., on Dec. 5 to charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempt to commit manslaughter and aiding and abetting. He has not been sentenced yet.

The men are accused of opening fire on a crowd of people at a crowded intersection in Baghdad. Witnesses say the shooting was unprovoked, and innocent men, women and children died. Blackwater claims its employees were on their way to respond to a car bombing when they were ambushed by insurgents.

"Defendant Ridgeway heard the initial shots coming from the Blackwater truck in front of him and then observed one of his teammates firing a machine gun into the front driver's side windshield of the Kia sedan," court documents said, adding that Ridgeway opened fire on the passenger in the car and killed Dr. Mahassin Mohssen Kadhum Al-Khazali, the mother of a medical student, Ahmed Haithem Ahmen Al Rubia'y.

A grenade was launched at the Kia, blowing it up in Nisur Square. As the convoy left the intersection, Ridgeway told authorities they continued to fire on civilian vehicles.

"Defendant Ridgeway fired at least three rounds from his M-4 assault rifle into the roof of a white Chevrolet Celebrity sedan that was next to the convoy, and wounded the driver of the white Chevrolet Celebrity, who was later identified as Abduyl Wahab Abdul Qadar Al-Qalamuchi," court documents said.

The case has already been assigned to a federal judge in Washington, D.C., but their attorneys arranged their surrender here in an attempt to get the case moved to pro-war, pro-gun, conservative Utah in hopes of getting a more sympathetic jury.

Complicating the case are questions of whether the private contractors can even be charged in American courts for crimes committed overseas. In a filing, U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said his office would not object to allowing the men to remain free pending trial and a Jan. 6 court appearance in Washington, D.C.

Tolman asked that the men surrender their passports, guns and remain within a 20-mile radius of their hometowns.

"The defendants shall have no contact with the other Blackwater guards who were assigned to Tactical Support Team Raven 23 on Sept. 16, 2007," Tolman asked in a court filing.

The case has led to strained relations between the United States and Iraq. After the shooting, Iraq's government sought to oust Blackwater from the country and prosecute the men in Iraqi courts.

"The killers must pay for their crime against innocent civilians. Justice must be achieved so that we can have rest from the agony we are living in," said Khalid Ibrahim, who said his 78-year-old father, Ibrahim Abid, died in the shooting. "We know that the conviction of the people behind the shooting will not bring my father to life, but we will have peace in our minds and hearts."

The North Carolina-based Blackwater Worldwide provides private security for U.S. diplomats and was not charged or implicated in the indictments, the U.S. Justice Department said. At a news conference in the nation's capital, prosecutors said the squadron of private security violated U.S. orders to fire only in self-defense.

"We take no pleasure in charging individuals whose job it was to protect the men and women of our country," said Jeffrey Taylor, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. "But when individuals are alleged to have violated the law while carrying out those duties, we are duty bound to hold them accountable, as no one is above the law, even when our country is engaged in war."

Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com