Soldier gets year in prison in Iraq abuses

Sivits was Army reservist in Md.-based MP company

Crisis In Iraq

May 20, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The request made to Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits was simple, and the soldier had a simple response. Describe, his lawyer told him during his court-martial yesterday, what it was like to work at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Sivits, dressed in desert-brown fatigues and sitting on the witness stand, stared straight ahead and stated firmly, "Just like hell." The 24-year-old paused for a moment, as if the military judge might disbelieve him, and added, "Honestly, it was."

It was the start of Sivits' attempt to explain his actions as one of the six Army reservists accused of abusing hooded, naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, actions that have roiled the U.S. military.

"I would like to apologize to the Iraqi people and to the detainees," said Sivits, the first person to be court-martialed for the abuses documented by graphic photographs. "I want to apologize to the Army, to my unit, to the country. I want to apologize to my family. I should have protected those detainees."

The judge, Col. James L. Pohl, accepted Sivits' guilty plea to two counts of dereliction of duty, one count each of conspiracy to maltreat detainees and of maltreatment. The judge rejected his plea for leniency.

Pohl sentenced Sivits to the maximum penalty allowed in a special court-martial: a year in prison, a reduction of rank and a bad-conduct discharge.

Under a plea bargain that spared him the more severe penalties of a general court-martial, Sivits agreed to testify against other soldiers at their courts-martial. He was the first member of the 372nd Military Police Company, based in Cresaptown, Allegany County, to be court-martialed in the case.

"I have learned a huge lesson, sir," he said. Choking back tears, he called Abu Ghraib the worst assignment of his career.

"We were attacked by mortars, rockets and small-arms fire," said Sivits, a mechanic who said he was never supposed to be in contact with detainees. "It was dirty. The prison was overcrowded. It was like a horror movie. Just like hell."

In the United States, his father, Daniel Sivits, said in a brief statement: "I want to make explicitly clear, Jeremy, no matter what, is still my son. We still love him. I am a veteran of the Vietnam War, and I want to say one thing: Jeremy is always a vet in my heart and in my mind."

Sivits, a garage mechanic in civilian life in Hyndman, Pa., 12 miles north of Cumberland, said he volunteered for Iraq a year after serving seven months in Bosnia. He talked of his father's and grandfather's service in wars, and of an uncle killed in Vietnam. He said he could be role model for new recruits in how not to behave.

"I love the Army," Sivits said. "I love that flag. All I ever wanted to be was an American soldier."

Sivits admitted standing by while other soldiers abused detainees for more than half an hour, acts that included punching a prisoner so hard that soldiers feared he had suffered cardiac arrest, stomping on prisoners' hands with steel-toed boots and scrawling "rapist" on a detainee's back.

The prosecutor, Capt. John McCabe, called Sivits' actions "humiliating, appalling and simply wrong." His behavior, the prosecutor said, "was against human values. Human beings do not need to be treated like that."

Also yesterday, in separate hearings, Army prosecutors arraigned three other soldiers - Sgts. Javal S. Davis and Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick and Cpl. Charles A. Graner, all of the same Maryland reserve unit - in connection with the abuses.

All three deferred entering pleas, and the next hearings were set for June 21. Three other soldiers are awaiting the Army's decision on whether they will be court-martialed.

Yesterday's proceedings were held in a conference room at the Baghdad Convention Center within the heavily fortified, U.S.-controlled Green Zone.

"This is a fair verdict, a decent trial conducted in front of the world," said Iraq's minister of human rights, Bakhtiar Amin, who attended the trial. "There are other soldiers who are more involved, and we will see in the future what their verdicts are."

Dara Nur Eddin, a judge who is also a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, said Iraqi judges should have been involved. "It's better than nothing," he said during a break. "At least it's happening in Iraq."

Some military personnel and news reports have suggested that senior officials authorized the abuse or established broad policies that encouraged it by ordering that detainees to be "softened up" for interrogation.

Sivits testified was mostly confined to the events of Nov. 8, which he portrayed as abuses carried out by poorly trained soldiers acting on their own.

He testified, however, that other, unidentified soldiers had told him the abuse was ordered by military intelligence officers. "They were told by MI to keep doing what they were doing because it was working, they were talking," he said in response to a question from the judge.

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