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ALEX COHEN, host:

The FBI is investigating Blackwater USA for the incident in Baghdad last month, when its private security guards opened fire on civilians and 17 Iraqis were killed. Now Blackwater also faces a civil lawsuit. The Center for Constitutional Rights says the company violated the law by committing extra-judicial killings and war crimes.

Susan Burke is one of the attorneys representing family members of several of the shooting victims.

Ms. SUSAN BURKE (Attorney): The one thing they can do with their own grief and suffering is try to help prevent it from happening to others. Hopefully, this lawsuit will be a step in that direction.

COHEN: To find out more about the legal precedents involved in this case, we're joined now by Scott Horton. He specializes in the law of armed conflict and he teaches at Columbia University's Law School. Welcome to the program.

Professor SCOTT HORTON (School of Law, Columbia University): Great to be with you, Alex.

COHEN: If you could explain - what laws are involved here? You know, of course if a soldier's employed by the U.S. military, there are certain laws in place. But in this instance, we're talking about a private security firm.

Prof. HORTON: Well, the laws in the first instance are going to be the same, whether we're dealing with a private contractor or we're dealing with uniformed soldiers. And so that would include the law of war and it would include the criminal law that's involved.

And the questions we're going to deal with in a situation like this, whether or not this was a privileged shooting - that is, whether the contractors here had sufficient cause to use their weapons.

COHEN: And in this particular case with this civil lawsuit that was filed yesterday, what kind of evidence might they be able to bring up in this case?

Prof. HORTON: Well, I think we're going to see an array of evidence brought in. That will include forensic evidence about the rounds of ammunition that were used. We'll see evidence introduced about who was killed, who was wounded, where were they, and which direction were they going.

So that the allegations had been that they were fleeing the scene - that is, not confronting the Blackwater group. And then we're going to hear testimonial evidence both from, I'm sure, investigators and people who were there at the scene.

COHEN: One of the concerns that has been brought up about these private contractors is that they are granted immunity in these instances. Can you explain legally speaking how immune are they?

Prof. HORTON: Under Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 17 that was issued by Paul Bremer as the head of the CPA, blanket immunity was granted to all contractors working there or present in the theater at the behest of the CPA. So that would have covered Blackwater here, and that means that there's no way an Iraqi criminal investigator could charge them, could bring them into a court. So the only possibility of examination and prosecution would exist under American law.

COHEN: Blackwater has received government contracts worth more than $1 billion over the past couple of years. If the lawyers in this suit prevail, how much might Blackwater be forced to pay to the families of these Iraqi victims?

Prof. HORTON: Well, that's a very good question. They're asking for punitive damages in an amount to be determined. And in this case I think that would be determined with reference to the profitability and size of Blackwater.

We also have claims brought by three of the Iraqi individuals. They have 14 children. That's set out. And if we used American standards for compensating, we would have an award that would very reflect more or less the lifetime compensation that the deceased would expect and probably something a bit beyond that. And then we get the punitive component, which could be a very substantial multiple of that.

COHEN: Scott Horton of Columbia University's Law School, thank you so much.

Prof. HORTON: Thank you.

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