Dog Handler Guilty of Inmate Abuse at Abu Ghraib

By DAVID STOUT and ERIC SCHMITT

New York Times

March 21, 2006

WASHINGTON, March 21 — An Army dog handler was found guilty today of abusing inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by frightening them with his unmuzzled Belgian shepherd for his own amusement.

A military jury found the defendant, Sgt. Michael J. Smith, 24, guilty of 6 of the 13 counts lodged against him, although the judge said later that he would not consider one of the six counts in determining sentence because it duplicated another. Sergeant Smith could face more than eight years in prison, forfeiture of pay and a dishonorable discharge. Had he been convicted of all counts, he would have been subject to more than 24 years in prison.

Sergeant Smith stood at attention and stared straight ahead as the panel returned the verdict at Fort Meade, Md., after about 18 hours of deliberation over three days, The Associated Press reported.

A hearing to determine the sentence was scheduled to begin this afternoon and continue on Wednesday, with several witnesses expected to testify on the defendant's behalf.

The jury rejected the defense's contention that Sergeant Smith was simply following orders. The prosecution maintained that Sergeant Smith's behavior in 2003 and 2004 went well beyond what was permissible in treating prisoners inhumanely and using more than the minimum force necessary to control prisoners.

Sergeant Smith was found guilty under the Uniform Code of Military Justice of two counts of mistreatment involving three detainees, conspiring to make a contest of causing detainees to soil themselves, dereliction of duty and an indecent act, The A.P. reported.

The case of Sergeant Smith, who is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is the latest in a long series of charges arising from abuses committed by members of the United States military at Abu Ghraib. Although Pentagon officials have insisted that only a tiny fraction of American soldiers behaved badly, there is wide agreement that their conduct damaged the standing of the United States in the Arab world.

Prosecutors contended that Sergeant Smith, who with the 523d Military Police Detachment at Fort Riley, Kan., had his dog strain at the leash with its jaws just inches away from several prisoners. The prosecutors said he and another dog handler, Sgt. Santos A. Cardona of Fullerton, Calif., vied to see who was better at making the captives soil themselves out of fear. Sergeant Cardona is to stand trial in May.

The conviction of Sergeant Smith came despite testimony last week by the commander of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and early 2004 that the Army lacked clear rules for using dogs in interrogations at Abu Ghraib.

The intelligence chief, Col. Thomas M. Pappas, said he regretted having failed to set "appropriate controls" at the prison, The A.P. reported during the trial.

Testifying for the defense, Colonel Pappas, who had been granted immunity from prosecution, said, "In hindsight, clearly we probably needed to establish some definitive rules and put out some clear guidance to everybody concerned."

But under cross-examination by prosecutors, Colonel Pappas said a photograph of Sergeant Smith's dog straining at its leash inches from the face of a prisoner showed conduct that was not consistent with any policy or guidance, The A.P. reported.

Military dogs were brought to Iraq in the fall of 2003 on the recommendation of Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the former commander at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who helped set up the interrogation operation at Abu Ghraib. He said he thought the dogs would be useful in maintaining order. An inquiry by three Army generals later found that Colonel Pappas believed, incorrectly, that the dogs could be used in interrogations without the approval of Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then the top American commander in Iraq.

General Miller decided in January to invoke his right not to give testimony that might incriminate him and so would not answer questions in court-martial proceedings against the two dog handlers, his lawyer said. Invoking that right, the rough equivalent of invoking the Fifth Amendment in a civilian court, does not constitute an admission of guilt or wrongdoing.