Abu Ghraib defendant guilty of abusing Iraqi prisoners

By Demetri Sevastopulo at Fort Hood, Texas

Financial Times

Published: January 15 2005

Specialist Charles Graner, the alleged ringleader of the Abu Ghraib scandal, was on Friday convicted of abusing inmates at the notorious Baghdad prison.

Spec Graner, who appeared in many of the Abu Ghraib photographs that shocked the world last year, stood emotionless as a 10-man military jury found him guilty of five charges including abusing prisoners and maltreating his subordinates. On Friday night the jury was considering Spec Graner's sentence; he faces up to 15 years in prison.

During the six-day court martial the first related to Abu Ghraib numerous witnesses described how Spec Graner and other army reservists had brutalised detainees at the prison, but provided scant evidence to back defence claims that they were following orders.

Since the emergence of the photographs graphic images of inmates being physically abused and sexually humiliated reams of documents have revealed that the US administration prepared legal justifications for harsh interrogations of terror suspects, raising concerns about abusive interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The White House denies that it permitted torture, and Friday's verdict helped bolster its argument that a few “bad apples” were responsible for Abu Ghraib. Nine Pentagon investigations have found that there was confusion over what interrogation techniques were permissible, but none has concluded that the US had a policy of torture.

Spec Graner's defence team failed to refute the White House argument. Guy Womack, a civilian lawyer, argued that military intelligence officers had ordered the reservists to get prisoners “softened up” for interrogations.

Spec Graner became one of the public faces of the scandal, along with Private Lynndie England, who appears in one photograph holding a naked Iraqi man on a leash. In one image depicting the so-called “Night of the Seven Riders”, Spec Graner poses behind a group of seven naked detainees stacked in a human pyramid.

Spec Graner sat composed in the courtroom all week as witnesses described how he beat prisoners and forced them to eat from toilets. But outside the courtroom he appeared buoyant and unapologetic for his actions. When asked whether he felt any remorse over the detainees, he replied, “What detainees?” Prosecutors portrayed Spec Graner as a charismatic soldier with a dark side. “The Christian in me knows it is wrong, but the corrections officer in me can't help enjoy seeing a grown man piss himself,” he allegedly told Sergeant Joseph Darby the whistleblower in the scandal while showing him some of the photographs.

The defence got off to a rocky start on Monday, spawning both laughter and scorn in the courtroom, by comparing the horrific image to cheerleaders' gymnastic manoeuvres.

“They were exploiting the cultural differences of this population for valid reasons,” Mr Womack said on Friday. “Sometimes when you make an omelette you have to break some eggs.”

After Mr Womack said placing naked prisoners in a pile had been “ingenious”, Prosecutor Captain Chris Graveline retorted, “Yeah it was creative it was creative abuse.”

One lawyer described as “horrific” Spec Graner's defence team of Mr Womack and Captain Jay Heath, a Harvard- and Georgetown-educated military lawyer. Most of the 11 witnesses called by the defence offered testimony that appeared to strengthen the prosecution's case that Spec Graner was a morally depraved soldier. At one point, Judge James Pohl told Mr Womack to stop telling him what to do.

Megan Ambuhl, who had already pleaded guilty to abusing prisoners, said military intelligence officers sometimes ordered military police to commit abuses, including pointing and laughing at naked showering prisoners. But on cross-examination she admitted having a sexual relationship with Spec Graner, and said she did not want him jailed.

Another defence witness, Roger Brokaw, a former military intelligence officer and interpreter, told the court that interrogators were under pressure to provide a certain number of intelligence reports each week. But he said he was unaware of any pressure placed on military police officers by the interrogators.

While the government won its case, many questions remain unanswered. The defence was successful in portraying a chaotic environment at Abu Ghraib, raising questions about why senior officers have not been charged. “The officers who let it happen were derelict in their duty in that they failed to maintain good order and discipline,” commented retired Rear-Admiral John Hutson, former Navy judge advocate-general who has been a critic of the administration's detention policies.

“As opposed to the few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel, the policymakers in Washington who ‘set the conditions' are the watermelons at the top of the barrel.”