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Rice asked to explain reported immunity granted to Blackwater
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13:55, October 31, 2007

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked to respond to reports that her department offered immunity to Blackwater security guards involved in a shooting incident in Iraq last month.

In a statement to the secretary of state, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman and Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden said that Rice should explain whether Blackwater security guards had been granted immunity from prosecution when the State Department investigated the shooting.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Blackwater guards gained the limited-use immunity during an inquiry by the State Department's investigative arm, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (BDS).

Limited-use immunity, as officials told the newspaper, means that security guards were promised they would not be prosecuted for anything they said in their interviews with the authorities as long as their statements were true.

"Press reports today indicate that DS (Department of State) agents offered grants of immunity to Blackwater employees after the Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad. Are these reports accurate?" Biden said. "If so, who authorized these grants of immunity? Was there consultation with the Department of Justice prior to such grants of immunity?"

Citing unidentified officials close to the BDS investigation, the report said that only prosecutors at the Justice Department have authority to grant such immunity, but they had no advance knowledge of the BDS arrangement.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) took over the case on Oct. 3 and has since then begun to re-interview Blackwater employees without granting any immunity to assemble independent evidence of possible wrongdoing.

Some Blackwater guards refused to be interviewed by FBI investigators citing the BDS immunity promises, according to a report of the Washington Post.

However, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd clarified in a Tuesday's statement "any suggestion that the Blackwater employees in question have been given immunity from federal criminal prosecution is inaccurate."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack tried to distance Rice from the immunity scandal by saying she has steadfastly supported accountability for anyone involved in the Blackwater shootings found to have broken the law.

He noted that it was Rice who asked the FBI to take over the investigation from the BDS.

Blackwater is a major military contractor providing security services to the U.S. government in Iraq. Its guards opened fire in a crowded Baghdad square when protecting a State Department convoy, killing as many as 17 Iraqi civilians.

Blackwater employees and other civilian contractors cannot be tried in U.S. military courts or in Iraqi courts and it is unclear what U.S. criminal laws might cover criminal acts committed in a war zone.

According to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), a law issued by a former U.S. administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer, the "multinational forces, foreign liaison missions, their personnel, property, funds and all international consultants shall be immune from the Iraqi legal process."

However, the enraged Iraqi government decided on Tuesday to revoke the immunity of foreign security firms from being prosecuted granted by the CPA.

Source: Xinhua

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