Judge denies bid to block Graner trial

Fair court-martial called possible on Abu Ghraib

December 07, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT HOOD, Tex. - A military judge rejected defense claims yesterday that Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., portrayed as a ringleader in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, cannot get a fair trial because of remarks by President Bush and other military leaders deploring the photographed abuses.

The judge, Col. James L. Pohl, also refused to let Graner call Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, as a witness at his trial. Any testimony from Sanchez about efforts to toughen interrogation efforts, Pohl ruled, would be too far removed from "what happened on the ground" at the prison.

Graner's lawyer, Guy Womack, of Houston, was said after yesterday's pre-trial hearing that Graner, a 36-year-old former Pennsylvania prison guard, still would prove at trial that he followed orders at the chaotic, war-zone prison and was not guilty of mistreating or assaulting Iraqi detainees.

"It may appear over the line sitting here, but it may not have appeared over the line if you were at Abu Ghraib prison during that time," Womack said.

Asked whether Graner had regrets about the abuses that touched off an international uproar, Womack replied: "Everyone who has served in combat has regrets. ... That doesn't mean you didn't do your duty."

Graner, who appears prominently in several of the widely circulated abuse photographs, is one of seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company from Western Maryland to be charged in the scandal. One photo shows Graner giving the thumbs-up as he stands near a pile of naked and hooded prisoners. In another, he is posed next to the corpse of a detainee who died during a CIA interrogation session.

He appeared relaxed at yesterday's hearing, dressed in desert camouflage fatigues and without the distinctive mustache or eyeglasses that marked him in the abuse photographs. He greeted reporters camped outside in a steady rain with a joke. Asked what it was like to be back in the United States, Graner shot back with a slight smile: "Today, it's wet."

Graner is expected to be transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda until his trial, scheduled for Jan. 7. Womack said the move to Maryland would allow Graner to be treated for some minor, recurring war injuries and would allow him to be closer to relatives in Pennsylvania over the holidays.

Two other soldiers from the 372nd, Sgt. Javal S. Davis and Spc. Sabrina D. Harman, also are scheduled to stand trial here early next year.

A court-martial for Graner's wartime girlfriend, Pfc. Lynndie R. England, is expected to be held in late January at Fort Bragg, N.C. She gave birth to the couple's child this year.

Three other members of the unit have pleaded guilty. The most senior of the soldiers, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick, was sentenced to eight years and is expected to testify at the trials of his fellow reservists.

Together, Frederick and Graner have been portrayed as the instigators of the photographed abuses that occurred during the prison's night shift late last fall. Both men are several years older than the other accused soldiers and each had worked as a corrections officer in civilian life.

But the two have maintained that rough treatment of detainees at the notorious prison was condoned or directed by intelligence operatives and higher-ranking officers. So far, only one low-ranking military intelligence soldier has been charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal, although military prosecutors have said charges against other intelligence soldiers could follow.

Womack tried yesterday to get the case against Graner thrown out on the grounds that comments about the scandal by Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others amounted to "unlawful command influence" over potential jurors in the case.

Amid an international outcry this spring, Bush apologized for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, saying, "The wrongdoers will be brought to justice." Rumsfeld called the soldiers' actions "un-American."

But Pohl noted that U.S. officials never described the accused soldiers as "guilty" and were careful in most instances to note that the reservists were presumed innocent. In an unusual exchange with Womack, Pohl underwent his own round of questioning and bluntly rejected any suggestion that he could have been influenced by the official statements or media reports about the scandal.

"Given all the knowledge you have about this case, do you feel that you would be influenced to rule one way or another?" Womack asked at one point.

"I do what I think is appropriate in the court, and other people do what they do," Pohl said.

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