Political murder of the day

In this New York Times photo, an Iraqi policeman looks over a car destroyed by Blackwater Security forces in the Nisour Square massacre.

Sept. 16, 2007: In what became known as the Nisour Square massacre, 14 Iraqi civilians were killed and 31 were injured in Baghdad by a private American security company in an incident that outraged Iraqis and strained relations between Iraq and the U.S.

Employees of Blackwater Security Consulting were traveling in a convoy of vehicles when they fired at an approaching car, perhaps thinking it was a suicide bomber, then set off stun grenades. In reality, the car was being driven by an Iraqi medical student, Ahmed Haithem Ahmed, who was driving his mother to pick up his father, a pathologist at a nearby hospital. The gunfire killed Ahmed, but his foot was still on the car’s accelerator, so the car kept moving.

Claiming that they were under attack, guards in the Blackwater convoy started firing in every direction throughout the square, killing Iraqi police and civilians. Witnesses said a Blackwater helicopter also joined the fight, firing from above, before the convoy finally left the area.

The incident sparked five investigations, including one by the FBI. U.S. prosecutors said Blackwater employees shot indiscriminately with automatic weapons, heavy machine guns, and grenade launchers.

Five Blackwater employees were charged with manslaughter in 2008, but the charges were dismissed, infuriating Iraqi officials. Charges were reinstated against four Blackwater employees in April 2011, and those men were convicted in October 2014.

One, Nicholas Slatten, was found guilty of first-degree murder, and the other three, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard, were convicted of voluntary manslaughter and a variety of other charges. In April 2015, they received sentences ranging from 30 years to life in prison for Slatten.

But Slatten’s conviction was later thrown out, and a new trial was ordered. The verdicts for the other men were not reversed, although their sentences were vacated. They remain in custody, and no new sentencing date has been set.

In September 2018, a new murder trial for Slatten resulted in a hung jury, and a mistrial was declared. In a third trial in December 2018, Slatten was convicted again of first-degree murder. In August 2019, he received a mandatory life sentence without parole. Slatten plans to appeal.

The shooting incident, sometimes referred to as “the My Lai massacre of Iraq,” triggered a diplomatic crisis and fed deep resentment over the accountability of American security forces. It also was a major factor in Iraq’s refusal to agree to a treaty to let U.S. forces stay in Iraq.

Blackwater, which had a $1 billion contract to protect American diplomats, was sold and renamed several times after the incident and merged with another private security firm. It is now known as Academi but is still owned by billionaire and Trump administration adviser Erik Prince.

In January 2012, Blackwater settled a civil suit on behalf of the victims for an undisclosed sum.


Miss a murder? Here are past ones.

The four victims of the Birmingham church bombing.

Sept. 15, 1963: Four African-American girls were killed when a bomb thrown by members of the Ku Klux Klan exploded at a church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were getting ready for church services when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing all four. At least 14 other people also were injured in the bombing. The church had been a center for the civil rights movement and marches in the city.

The same day, two other black teens were killed. Virgil Lamar Ware, a 13-year-old who was riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bike, was shot and killed by white teenagers who had attended a segregationist rally in the aftermath of the church bombing. As riots broke out because of the explosion, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson was shot by a police officer after having been attacked by a group of white teenagers in a car draped with a Confederate flag.

In 1965, several suspects of the church bombing emerged, but many witnesses were reluctant to testify, and no charges were filed. Finally, in 1977, Robert Chambliss, a retired auto mechanic and former KKK member, was convicted of first-degree murder in the bombing and was sentenced to life in prison; he died in 1985.

The FBI reopened the case in 1997, and two men and former KKK members, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were both found guilty and sentenced to four life terms. The case was prosecuted by Alabama U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. Those prosecutions fueled a successful run for the U.S. Senate in a special election in 2017, fueled in large part by African-American voters.

The Birmingham church bombing is seen as a turning point in the civil rights movement, when people all across the U.S. saw pictures of the murdered children causing some (obviously not all) to turn against the white supremacy movement.

In 2006, the church was declared a national historic landmark. In 2013, 50 years after the bombing, all four girls were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, and a bronze and steel statue of the girls was unveiled near the church.


Bashir Gemayel

Sept. 14, 1982: The president-elect of Lebanon was among 26 people killed and more than 100 injured in a bombing at the Christian Phalange party headquarters in Beirut.

Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel had made his reputation as a fearless and some said ruthless military leader as head of a large group of Christian Phalangists. During Lebanon’s civil war in 1975-76, he led Christian militias against armed Palestinians. In one battle, he led the siege of a Palestinian refugee camp, after which the Christian Phalangists killed the camp’s survivors.

In June 1982, Israeli forces invaded Lebanon to drive out Palestinians, and many Lebanese thought that Gemayel, in his role as head of the military, betrayed Lebanon by allowing the Israeli invasion. The invasion lasted two months and ended in an agreement in which armed Palestinians, including Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Liberation Organization followers, would leave Lebanon.

Gemayel was elected president by the Lebanese Parliament on Aug. 23, after his forces killed one of his Christian political rivals and threatened other members of Parliament with assassination if they didn’t back him. But Gemayal was assassinated himself before being sworn in.

On Sept. 14, a massive bomb with 450 pounds of TNT, hidden above the central meeting hall of the Phalange headquarters, exploded. The bomb was set off remotely by Habib Tanious Shartouni, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist party and a Maronite Christian, who had planted the bomb the previous day. The three-story building rose into the air, and then collapsed into rubble.

Shartouni was arrested and confessed to the bombing. He was imprisoned for eight years, until Syrian troops took over Lebanon in 1990 and freed him.

Gemayel had survived previous assassination attempts in 1979 and 1980.


Victor Jara

Sept. 12, 1973: A Chilean singer who inspired musicians worldwide was among thousands of Chileans rounded up, tortured, and killed in the aftermath of a CIA-backed military coup that removed Chilean President Salvador Allende from power.

Victor Jara was a theater director, poet, and teacher as well as a musician. He had been a strong backer of Allende’s socialist Popular Unity or Unidad Popular government and often spoke on his behalf.

Jara toured the poor sections and shanty towns of Chile, teaching songs and singing. He became known throughout the world for his music.

On Sept. 11, 1973, the military seized power and Allende committed suicide after giving a farewell speech on Chilean radio. On Sept. 12, Jara was forced into Chile Stadium along with thousands of others, with new prisoners brought in daily.

According to later reports from those who survived, on Sept. 15 or 16, Jara was trying to calm and rouse the spirits of many of the approximately 6,000 people inside when he was recognized by his military captors. He was brought forward to the center of the arena, in view of the crowd. He was beaten, and had his guitar-playing fingers cut off and his wrists broken.

The commander then ordered him to sing. Jara raised his now-bloody hands and led many in the crowd in the anthem of Allende’s Unidad Popular Party. He was then shot multiple times.

Jara’s body was discarded outside the stadium within a few days, along with others who had been tortured and killed. His wife, Joan Turner Jara, was able to identify it from among bodies that had been dumped at a mass morgue.

It was not until 2009 that any members of the Chilean military were charged with Jara’s death. José Adolfo Paredes Márquez confessed to killing Jara on the orders of those higher up in the military. Many of those charged had left Chile and are living in the United States, but three other former military officers were charged in 2014: Hernan Chancon Soto, Patricio Vasquez Donoso, and Ramon Melo Silva.

In addition, in June 2016, a Florida civil court jury found that Chilean Army Lt. Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nunez was responsible for Jara’s death. Barrientos, who now lives in Deltona, Fla., was found liable for $28 million, to be paid to Jara’s family.

The military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet tried to destroy most of the master recordings of Jara’s music, but Joan Jara was able to sneak many of the masters out of Chile. Rolling Stone named Jara one of the top 15 foremost protest artists. Jara served as an inspiration for artists such as Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, and U2.

Chile Stadium today is known as the Estadio Victor Jara, or the Victor Jara Stadium.


The twin towers of the World Trade Center moments before the second plane hit.

Sept. 11, 2001: Some 3,000 people were killed in the biggest terror attack on U.S. soil.

Two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City; one plane hit the Pentagon in Washington; one plane went down in Pennsylvania. Victims included passengers and crew on the planes, workers in the buildings of the World Trade Center, workers in the Pentagon, and first responders. Twenty members of al Qaeda were responsible.

Enough said.


Anna Lindh

Sept. 10, 2003: The Swedish minister for foreign affairs and likely next prime minister of Sweden suffered fatal wounds in a knife attack in a department store in Stockholm. She died early the next morning.

Anna Lindh was considered the next in line to become both chairman of the Social Democratic Party and prime minister of Sweden. She had served in Parliament and was the minister of environment before becoming the minister for foreign affairs.

On Sept. 10, 2003, Lindh was shopping for clothes to wear in a planned televised debate on an upcoming referendum about whether Sweden should adopt the Euro when she was stabbed. After the attack, Lindh’s assailant escaped the crowded department store but was finally caught on Sept. 24 after a massive manhunt.

The attacker, Mijailo Mijailovic, who was born in Sweden to Serbian parents, was held in custody and finally confessed to the crime in January. He was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2011, Mijailovic finally spoke about the crime. He claimed the killing was an impulsive act and that he had been high on Flunitrazepam, usually used as a sedative or muscle relaxant but also known as roofies, or the date-rape drug — not a medication that makes people high.

The Anna Lindh Foundation was formed in 2005 to be “an inter-governmental institution bringing together civil society and citizens across the Mediterranean to build trust and improve mutual understanding.”


Ahmad Shah Massoud

Sept. 9, 2001: The anti-Taliban fighter who led Afghan forces against the Soviet invasion and was considered the one man able to stop Osama bin Laden was killed in an al Qaeda suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as “the lion of Panjshir,” was an Afghan political and military leader who served as head of the United Front against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He became the most successful of the leaders of the mujahidin forces fighting against the Soviets, earning a worldwide reputation as a military genius.

Although he was born in a rural village, he learned to speak five languages and was educated at several secular as well as religious institutions. He earned a degree in engineering from Kabul University.

Unlike Islamic fundamentalists, Massoud believed in and supported women’s rights, universal education, and democracy. “We consider this our duty — to defend humanity against the scourge of intolerance, violence, and fanaticism,” Massoud was quoted as saying.

For years after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, Massoud created and led Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda for control of the country. Massoud served for a short time in Afghan’s post-communist government as minister of defense. Early in 2001, Massoud addressed the European Parliament in Brussels, asking for aid to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda and warning the group about a possible upcoming attack by al Qaeda against the West.

Massoud was killed in the town of Khwaja Bahauddin by two Arab men posing as journalists, most likely from al Qaeda. Assassinating Massoud only two days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was seen as the final point of the triumph of Islamic radicals in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda leader Bin Laden was quoted as saying, “As long as this man is alive, no victory is possible.”

Today Massoud is considered a national hero in Afghanistan, and Sept. 9 is celebrated as Massoud Day.


Louisiana’s Huey Long

Sept. 8, 1935: Louisiana legend and U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long was shot by a relative of a political rival in the Louisiana State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge. Long, a longtime Democratic Louisiana politician, former governor, and power broker, died two days later on Sept. 10.

Long, aka “The Kingfish,” was revered by the Louisiana masses as a champion of the common man but often was demonized by the powerful as a dangerous demagogue. He won election as governor in 1928 on a “Share the Wealth” platform with the slogan, “Every Man a King.”

Long campaigned throughout the state, talking to the poorest residents — an unusual tactic in Louisiana politics at the time. He launched a program to rebuild the state’s infrastructure, providing public education and boosting economic opportunity.

To pay for his programs, he raised taxes on Louisiana businesses and the wealthy. His political enemies in the Louisiana House impeached him in 1929, but the state Senate failed to convict him.

Long built up loyalty with a massive political patronage system, giving out jobs in exchange for campaign contributions to his “deduct box” — historians estimate that state workers gave him up to $75,000 each election cycle. He won a Senate seat in 1930 but did not go to Washington until he was sure he had a successor who would follow his policies.

Long started a campaign to challenge Franklin Delano Roosevelt in advance of the 1936 election and gained national prominence with his national Share the Wealth Society, with more than 1 million members. A fiery speaker, his national stature grew as he toured the country to push his Share the Wealth idea.

Long had often been the target of death threats, and “Huey Long assassination clubs” formed in Louisiana, made up of mostly wealthy businessmen and other upper-class professionals. He was finally attacked on Sept. 8. The shooter, Dr. Carl Weiss, was immediately killed by Long’s bodyguards after the attack.

Long had been attempting to oust Weiss’ father-in-law, Judge Benjamin Pavy, through redistricting. Pavy was a longtime political foe of Long. More than 200,000 people attended Long’s funeral.

A fictionalized account of Long’s life was told in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. It won the Pulitzer Prize. Two films were based on the novel. The 1949 version won the Academy Award for best picture.


An artist’s depiction of how the assassin umbrella probably worked.

Sept. 7, 1978: A Bulgarian dissident was killed in London in what British tabloids called the umbrella poison murder.

The Soviet KGB and agents of the Bulgarian secret police had made several attempts on the life of Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Ivanov Markov, who had defected from Bulgaria and was working as a journalist for the BBC in London. But in a story that has all the ingredients of a Cold War spy novel, they didn’t succeed until Sept. 7, 1978, when an assassin shot a ricin pellet out of an umbrella at Markov from behind.

Markov was waiting at a bus stop near the Waterloo Bridge in the central London district known as the Strand when he felt a prick at the back of his right thigh. He turned and saw a man pick up an umbrella. The man mumbled, “I’m sorry,” in a foreign accent, hurriedly ran across the street, and got into a taxi.

Markov soon developed a fever. He was hospitalized and died four days later. Several KGB defectors later confirmed that the KGB had arranged the murder, but no one has ever been charged. A month before his death, Markov had received a phone call informing him that he would “die of natural causes, killed by a poison the West could not detect or treat.”

A PBS documentary, Secrets of the Dead, reconstructed the assassination, showing the above sketch of an umbrella with a canister of compressed air to fire the poison pellet. According to The Guardian, a stack of these umbrellas was discovered in the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior after the collapse of communism in the country.

A BBC documentary, The Umbrella Assassin, using files from the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior, named the prime suspect as Francesco Gullino, who is now an antiques dealer in Austria. His spy name in the Bulgarian files is “Agent Piccadilly.”

Those files also showed that Gullino was paid 30,000 pounds from the Bulgarian Secret Service in 1978 and that another unnamed Bulgarian agent, nicknamed “the Woodpecker,” flew into London the day before the killing and flew out the day after.

For the record, Gullino has denied that he killed Markov.


President William McKinley

Sept. 6, 1901: President William McKinley was shot and fatally wounded by an anarchist assassin at a reception in Buffalo, New York.

McKinley, the 25th U.S. president, was into his second term of office. He had overseen a U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War and a rebounding economy. He was on a speaking tour of the United States, trying to boost trade reciprocity with other countries. But members of McKinley’s team were concerned about his safety because of recent assassinations in Europe by anarchists.

The assassin, Leon Czolgosz, an unemployed Detroit mill worker, first attempted to kill McKinley on Sept. 5 as the president made a speech to 50,000 people at the Pan-American Trade Exposition in Buffalo. Czolgosz reached the front of the crowd, near the presidential podium, but later said he was unsure of hitting his target.

On Sept. 6, Czolgosz waited in line at a reception in the Temple of Music at the Exposition, where McKinley was greeting the public. Czolgosz concealed his gun in a handkerchief. When he reached the head of the reception line, he shot McKinley twice in the abdomen.

McKinley was treated for his wounds and seemed to be improving. But a bullet that entered his abdomen was not removed, and infection set in. He died on Sept. 14.

Czolgosz later said he had been inspired by activist Emma Goldman and wanted to kill McKinley because he was “an enemy of the people.” He also said he had gotten the idea from the assassination of Italian King Umberto I, who had been killed by an Italian-American anarchist, Gaetano Bresci.

Czolgosz was convicted twelve days later and executed by electric chair.

3 Comments on “Political murder of the day

  1. Pingback: Political murder is on a Rocky Mountain high | Political Murder

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