The US Justice Department has brought fresh charges against four former Blackwater Worldwide security contractors, reviving an internationally charged case over a deadly 2007 shooting on the streets of Baghdad.
A new jury indictment charges the men in a shooting that inflamed anti-American sentiment in Iraq and heightened diplomatic sensitivities amid an ongoing war. The men were hired to guard US diplomats.
The guards are accused of opening fire in busy Nisoor Square on September 16, 2007, killing 17 Iraqi civilians, including women and children.
Prosecutors say the heavily armed Blackwater convoy used machine guns and grenades in an unprovoked attack. Defence lawyers argue their clients are innocent men who were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents.
The guards were charged with manslaughter and weapons violations in 2008, but a federal judge the following year dismissed the case, ruling the Justice Department withheld evidence from a grand jury and violated the guards' constitutional rights.
The dismissal outraged many Iraqis, who said it showed Americans consider themselves above the law. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking in Baghdad in 2010, expressed his "personal regret" for the shootings.
A federal appeals court reinstated the case in 2011, saying now-retired Judge Ricardo Urbina had wrongly interpreted the law.
Prosecutors again presented evidence before a grand jury, and US District Judge Royce Lamberth gave the Justice Department until Monday to decide what to do with the case.
The defendants include retired US marines Dustin Heard and Evan Liberty, former US Army sergeant Nick Slatten and US Army veteran Paul Slough.
Slatten is charged with 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 16 counts of attempting to commit manslaughter; Liberty and Heard are charged with 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 16 counts of attempting to commit manslaughter; and Slough is charged with 13 counts of voluntary manslaughter and 18 counts of attempting to commit manslaughter.
All four were also charged with one count of using and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
They were charged under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, a statute that allows the government to prosecute certain government employees and contractors for crimes committed overseas.
Defence lawyers have argued that statute does not apply in this case since the guards were working as State Department contractors, not for the military.
Heard's lawyer, David Schertler, said in an email he was disappointed with the prosecution, which he believes has no merit.
"We will continue to fight and defend Dustin Heard's innocence and honour until he is fully exonerated," he said.
US Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. said the prosecution "demonstrates our commitment to upholding the rule of law even in times of war and to bringing justice to the memories of those innocent men, women and children who were gunned down in Baghdad more than six years ago."Prosecutors last month agreed to dismiss their case against a fifth guard, Donald Ball, a retired Marine. A sixth guard, Jeremy Ridgeway pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.