In Florida Legal Case, Blackwater Demands Taliban Treatment

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 1:02 PM PDT

There's no telling how the Iraqi legal system would have dealt with last September's shooting incident in a Baghdad traffic circle, during which Blackwater operators killed 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded 24 others. It never got the chance to weigh in because U.S. contractors—thanks to a last-minute order passed by the outgoing Coalition Provisional Authority—are immune from Iraqi law. That's how Blackwater prefers it... and perhaps with good reason; Iraq's legal system is not known for fair and principled jurisprudence. Just look at the footage of Saddam's execution.

It may seem strange then that Presidential Airways, a Blackwater sister company also owned by Erik Prince, is arguing in a Florida courtroom that its contractors in Afghanistan should be tried under Islamic Sharia law—you know, the legal code of the Taliban. The case deals with a 2004 incident, detailed in a memorandum (.pdf) released last October by Rep. Henry Waxman's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, in which contractor pilots took a low-altitude joy ride through an uncharted area of the Afghan mountains, colliding with one of them and killing everyone aboard, including U.S. soldiers. The families are now suing Presidential Airways for damages.

So, how does Prince reconcile subjecting Presidential Airways pilots to local law, while simultaneously arguing that his contractors in Iraq are above it? Here's his answer, according to the Raleigh News & Observer:

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Prince was asked to justify having a case involving an American company working for the U.S. government decided by Afghan law.

"Where did the crash occur?" Prince said. "Afghanistan."

Joseph Schmitz, Prince's general counsel, said Presidential Airways was asking the federal judge to follow past U.S. cases where courts have applied another country's laws to resolve damages that occurred overseas...

In April, Presidential asked a federal judge in Florida to dismiss the lawsuit because the case is controlled by Afghanistan's Islamic law. If the judge agrees that Afghan law applies, the lawsuit would be dismissed. The company also plans to ask a judge to dismiss the lawsuit on the constitutional grounds that a court should not interfere in military decision-making.

The National Transportation Safety Board has blamed the crash on Presidential for its "failure to require its flight crews to file and fly a defined route," and for not providing oversight to make sure its crews followed company policies and Pentagon and FAA safety regulations.

So, Mr. Prince, where did the September shootings occur? Iraq. Not like that matters when you treat the law like a buffet table. The Florida legal case is true to form for Blackwater, and indeed for the rest of the private security business: with no universally applicable laws to reign them in, firms like Blackwater are free to pick and choose which ones they'll follow. Sometimes, when convenient, those laws appear to include the ones passed down from the Prophet Muhammad.

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