On Wednesday, a federal judge rejected a series of arguments by lawyers for the mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater seeking to dismiss five high-stakes war crimes cases brought by Iraqi victims against both the company and its owner, Erik Prince. At the same time, Judge T.S. Ellis III sent the Iraqis’ lawyers back to the legal drawing board to amend and refile their cases, saying that the Iraqi plaintiffs need to provide more specific details on the alleged crimes before a final decision can be made on whether or not the lawsuits will proceed.
“We were very pleased with the ruling,” says Susan Burke, the lead attorney for the Iraqis. Burke, who filed the lawsuits in cooperation with the Center for Constitutional Rights, is now preparing to re-file the suits. Blackwater’s spokesperson Stacy DeLuke said, “We are confident that [the plaintiffs] will not be able to meet the high standard specified in Judge Ellis’s opinion.”
Ellis’s ruling was not necessarily a response to faulty pleadings by the Iraqis’ lawyers but rather appears to be the result of a Supreme Court decision that came down after the Blackwater cases were originally filed. In a 5-4 ruling in May 2009 in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the court reversed decades of case law and imposed much more stringent standards for plaintiffs’ documentation of facts before going to trial. According to Ellis’s ruling, which cites Iqbal, the Iraqis must now file complaints that meet these new standards.
Judge Ellis, a Reagan appointee with a mixed record on national security issues, rejected several of the central arguments Blackwater made in its motion to dismiss, namely the company’s contention that it cannot be sued by the Iraqis under US law and that the company should not be subjected to potential punitive damages in the cases. The Iraqi victims brought their suits under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows for litigation in US courts for violations of fundamental human rights committed overseas by individuals or corporations with a US presence. Ellis said that Blackwater’s argument that it cannot be sued under the ATS is “unavailing,” adding that corporations and individuals can both be held responsible for crimes and torts. He said bluntly that “claims alleging direct corporate liability for war crimes” are legitimate under the statute.
Ellis also rejected Blackwater’s argument that “conduct constitutes a war crime only if it is perpetrated in furtherance of a ‘military objective’ rather than for economic or ideological reasons.” Ellis said that under Blackwater’s logic “it is arguable that nobody who receives a paycheck would ever be liable for war crimes. Moreover, so narrow is the scope of [Blackwater’s] standard that it would exclude murders of civilians committed by soldiers where there was no legitimate ‘military objective’ for committing the murders.”
“What is important here is that the judge is saying that violations of war crimes can be committed by private people or corporations,” says Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He said Ellis’s ruling is “an affirmation of the precedent set by CCR thirty years ago” when it brought the first successful Alien Tort suit in 200 years “that those who engage in violations of fundamental human rights abroad can be held liable in the US.” Ellis’s ruling, he says, “is sympathetic to the idea that the Blackwater case is an appropriate use of the law.”