Trial opens with claim of `rogue' acts by guard

Defense says Abu Ghraib soldier followed orders

March 14, 2006|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

NOTR TO READERS

A photograph published yesterday with an article about the court-martial of a guard at Abu Ghraib prison showed a book cover that contained an obscenity. The obscenity went unnoticed during editing and should not have been published. Publication of the photo violates The Sun's guidelines.

The Sun apologizes for the oversight.

The court-martial of Abu Ghraib prison guard Sgt. Michael J. Smith opened at Fort Meade yesterday with the military's assertion that Smith was part of a "rogue" band of guards who "tormented, terrorized and terrified" detainees at the Iraqi prison.

Smith, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is accused of using his military working dog to bark and growl at detainees as part of a game played with the intent of making the detainees urinate and defecate on themselves. Prosecutors said his dog also appeared to bite a prisoner on the wrist and at one point chased a detainee down a hallway.

Defense attorneys said Smith was acting on orders from higher authorities and was simply doing his job - using his dog to maintain order in a chaotic prison and to frighten detainees to prep them for interrogation.

"The government is going to ask you to take away the freedom of Sergeant Smith for defending our freedom," said Capt. Jason Duncan, a defense lawyer. "Now, what crime did he commit? His military working dog barked at people."

Smith is charged with five specifications, or counts, of maltreatment of prisoners, four specifications of assault, two of conspiracy, and one each of dereliction of duty and committing an indecent act. He faces up to 29 years in prison if convicted on all charges.

Smith is being tried by a general court-martial; his guilt or innocence will be decided by a seven-member panel. The panel includes three colonels, one lieutenant colonel and three noncommissioned officers.

The trial, expected to last up to two weeks, could shed some light on who approved the use of dogs to threaten and assault detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and early 2004. Some human-rights groups have criticized the military for prosecuting only low-ranking soldiers such as Smith.

"The administration has unfortunately been successful in casting the burden of a torture conspiracy onto low-level soldiers," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. "It's diverting from what really should be happening here, which is accountability at the highest levels of government."

In his opening statement yesterday, military prosecutor Maj. Matthew Miller acknowledged a "failure of leadership" by Col. Thomas M. Pappas, who ran Abu Ghraib and has admitted to approving the use of dogs in a few instances. Pappas has been granted immunity from prosecution and is on the witness list for Smith's trial.

Miller, in his opening, ran through a litany of instances in which he said Smith allowed his dog, barking and growling, to get within inches of detainees. He said Smith and another dog handler, Sgt. Santos A. Cardona, used their dogs to force detainees to perform what they called "the doggy dance."

The term was used to describe a situation where Smith and Cardona approached a detainee with their dogs from different directions, forcing the detainee to dance between the barking dogs, Miller said.

In one such instance, Cardona's dog bit a detainee on each leg, Miller said. He presented photos showing those injuries.

One witness, former Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick of Cumberland, Md., testified yesterday that on one occasion he saw Smith allow his dog to get too close to a detainee who was handcuffed to cell bars and apparently bite the detainee on the wrist. Frederick said the detainee had abrasions on his wrist consistent with a dog bite.

Miller said that when Smith was confronted by another soldier and asked why he was allowing his dog to bark at two juveniles, Smith said, "I'm trying to see if I can make somebody [defecate on] themselves because me and my partner have already made some people [urinate on] themselves."

Prosecutors also said Smith used his dog to lick peanut butter off of two other soldiers as part of a bet. Sgt. Jennifer Scala testified that she allowed the dog to lick peanut butter off her breasts. Former Sgt. John Lemala said he placed peanut butter on his genitals, but the dog stopped an inch away. He could not identify the dog as Smith's.

Defense lawyers said the incidents were the stupid actions of bored soldiers but did not amount to criminal activity.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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