Syrian Prisoner's Account of Abuse Is Heard at Trial

By KATE ZERNIKE

New York Times

January 12, 2005

FORT HOOD, Tex., Jan. 11 - The soldiers tied the detainees' hands behind their backs and hooded them as they marched them one by one into the cellblock at Abu Ghraib on a November night in 2003.

"They threw us in a pile, and then I heard footsteps running," one of the detainees, Hussein Mutar, testified today in a military trial here. "Then I heard someone diving on me."

The diving soldiers had hurt his knee and shoulder. He was crying, he testified, the men around him were crying, and the soldiers were "screaming and laughing." The soldiers ordered the detainees to strip, he recalled, and anyone who couldn't take his clothes off fast enough had them cut off with a knife.

"He hit me on my face and on my knees, and all I could hear was the screaming of the people around me, and myself screaming," he testified, glancing nervously at a translator.

The detainees were forced to masturbate, he said, and, in the photos that have become infamous, forced into a pyramid of naked human bodies.

"I couldn't imagine it in the beginning that this could happen," Mr. Mutar testified. "But I wished that I would kill myself because no one over there was stopping what was going on."

Mr. Mutar and another detainee testified today before the prosecution rested its case in the court-martial of Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr., the Army reservist that prosecutors say was the ringleader of the abuse captured in photographs of Mr. Mutar and other detainees.

The pictures set off an international scandal and investigations that have exposed detainee abuses at other American detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistian and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Their testimony, delivered by videotape made in Iraq last month, was the most direct accounting from detainees in the photographs of the treatment they received at Abu Ghraib. They described it in stark, vivid terms, shaking their heads and occasionally thumping themselves in the chest or the head to punctuate the force that had been used on them. Mr Mutar, identified by a scar on his rear, circled photographs of himself as the man on top of the human pyramid.

Their testimony was the most dramatic evidence in the government's effort to portray Specialist Graner as a ruthless abuser who took delight in beating prisoners and forcing them into sexually humiliating positions.

"Saddam didn't do this to us," Mr. Mutar said.

Lawyers for Specialist Graner have said the soldiers were following orders from military superiors who were under pressure to get better information from the detainees in interrogation. But several military investigators and the detainees themselves testified that the detainees were common criminals and were not brought to the prison to be interrogated.

"No one questioned us," said Mr. Mutar, who said he was taken in a nighttime raid on his house by Iraqi police officers who believed he had stolen a car, and transferred to the Americans. "They took us and tortured us."

"Graner was the primary torturer," testified another detainee, Ameen Al-Sheikh, through an interpreter from a courtroom at Camp Victory in Iraq. Specialist Graner's attorney asked if his client had been acting under orders, as the defense has argued.

"Perhaps," said Mr. Al-Sheikh, a Syrian who went to Iraq in 2003 to fight the Americans. "But it is his nature. He is an aggressive man."

"You cannot imagine," he said, asked whether it had hurt when Specialist Graner used a metal baton to hit a gunshot wound on his leg. "I cried."

"He handcuffed me to the door for eight hours and the next day I had a dislocated shoulder and they took me to the hospital," he recalled. "And my shoulder was broken."

"Graner told me to thank Jesus for keeping me alive," said Mr. Al-Sheikh. Mr. Graner knew, he said, that it would deeply offend Mr. Al-Sheikh;s Muslim faith.

Other soldiers had mistreated him several times since the night he arrived at Abu Ghraib in October 2003, Mr. Al-Sheikh testified, hooding him and forcing him to curse Islam. But Specialist Graner, he testified, was the harshest.

He described Specialist Graner as "laughing, whistling, singing" as he hurt him.

Prosecutors showed the jury several e-mail messages that Specialist Graner had sent home on his Army account to family and friends, one including a photograph of him stitching the head of a detainee who had been wounded.

The judge would not allow the messages to be read aloud or released publicly, but a spokesman for the prosecution told reporters that they contradict Specialist Graner's assertion that he was under orders to mistreat detainees.

Specialist Graner, a 36-year-old reservist from the 372nd Military Police Company based in Maryland, faces up to 17 and a half years in prison if convicted on several counts of assault, maltreatment, dereliction of duty and indecent acts stemming from the abuse scandal.

After Mr. Al-Sheikh's testimony today, Guy Womack, Specialist Graner's civilian attorney, suggested that the detainee was an unreliable witness because he had exchanged gunfire at Abu Ghraib with American soldiers, using a gun that was smuggled in to him.

Mr. Al-Sheikh insisted an Iraqi guard had given him the gun after he said he feared for his life.

At a break, Mr. Womack told reporters the testimony was "very helpful" to the defense because it "would offend the jury."

"It's the face of the enemy," he said, "it's very clear that he hates America."