Iraqis to Testify in Trial of G.I. Accused of Abusing Them

By KATE ZERNIKE

New York Times

Published: January 7, 2005

FORT HOOD, Tex., Jan. 7 - Three Iraqi detainees who said they were abused by soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad will testify against the reservist accused of being the ringleader of the group accused of misconduct, prosecutors said today after a jury was seated at the court martial.

The reservist, Specialist Charles A. Graner, Jr., 36, is the first soldier to face a contested trial in the abuse case that broke open last spring with the publication of photographs showing naked detainees piled in a pyramid, leashed and crawling, or forced to simulate sexual acts, and Specialist Graner and other military guards grinning and giving the thumbs-up sign alongside them.

A military judge said the lawyers' opening statements would begin on Monday.

On Thursday, prosecutors dropped four counts against Specialist Graner, which included accusations that he had committed adultery with a soldier at the prison, Pfc. Lynndie R. England, and had tried to coerce another soldier not to tell anyone that he had seen the abuse. Specialist Graner still faces a maximum of 17 and a half years in prison for charges of assault, maltreatment, dereliction of duty and indecent acts.

The detainees, who were not identified, will testify in taped video statements taken in Iraq last month. The list of 35 witnesses also includes the Specialist Joseph M. Darby, a reservist, who gave the photographs to investigators and told them that Specialist Graner had bragged about mistreating prisoners. Four other soldiers, all accused of misconduct themselves, have agreed to testify as part of plea agreements. The commander of their unit, the 372nd Military Police Company based Cresaptown, Md., is also on the witness list.

Specialist Graner, wearing his dress uniform, sat passively as his lawyer entered his plea of not guilty but put forth an upbeat attitude as he passed through a throng of reporters and photographers outside.

"The sun is stills shining, the sky's blue, we're in America," he said, smiling. "There's been ups and downs, but the ups have so outweighed the downs," he added, stepping into his car. "Whatever happens is going to happen, but I still feel it's going to be, you know, on the positive side."

Specialist Graner's lawyer, Guy Womack, repeated his insistence that his client, who has been demoted in rank, from corporal, was following orders to "soften up prisoners" when he put the prisoners in sexually humiliating positions and took pictures of them. "If he was following lawful orders, it's an absolute defense to all the charges," he said. "If he was following unlawful orders but did not know they were unlawful, if a reasonable person would not know, that's an absolute defense."

"We have to hold the order-givers to a higher standard," he added.

Mr. Womack said he had not decided whether to call Specialist Graner as a witness in his own defense, but referred to him as an articulate, "outstanding candidate to be a witness."

"It would be a catharsis for him to take the stand and say 'This is what happened,' " he said.

The trial was moved to Fort Hood from Baghdad because the military feared it could not find enough soldiers there to serve as a jury. It took just an hour to choose the jury of 10 - all male, consisting of four officers and six from the enlisted ranks, all described by lawyers as combat veterans.

A conviction requires the agreement of seven members of the jury. Eight members must agree for a sentence of 10 years or more.

The judge, Col. James Pohl, and lawyers asked an initial pool of 12 jurors whether they could be impartial, given the intense coverage of the case in the news media. Most soldiers said they had followed the coverage, but not closely. One of the two who were dismissed hinted at how the scandal had affected morale in the ranks.

"Frankly, I've got to tell you, it had a strong impact on me," said Col. Allen Batschelet. "As an Army officer, I was embarrassed by what I saw in the media. I don't want to pull any punches here." He added, "The values I hold dear as a soldier were called into question by the whole affair."