Sergeant guilty in Abu Ghraib abuses

Dog handler convicted on 6 of 13 counts faces up to 8 1/2 years in prison

March 22, 2006|By STEPHEN KIEHL | STEPHEN KIEHL,SUN REPORTER

A military jury convicted an Army dog handler yesterday of six counts of abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq - including a charge that he used his dog as part of a game to make prisoners soil themselves - but cleared the soldier of more serious charges.

Sgt. Michael J. Smith could be sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison rather than the 24 years he faced if convicted on all counts. Smith, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is the 10th soldier to be convicted in the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib.

No commanding officers have been prosecuted in the abuse scandal. But at Smith's court-martial, the former head of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib, Col. Thomas M. Pappas, testified that he approved the use of dogs in at least one interrogation without getting clearance from above.

Critics seized on that as evidence that the military needs to go after commanding officers and civilian leaders. But Pappas' testimony that even he was confused about how dogs were to be used and who could give approval was not enough to clear Smith.

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, said the government has to be happy it won any convictions in a case that included testimony that the use of dogs was approved by high-level commanders.

"They got half a dozen convictions in the face of testimony going up the chain of command," Ratner said. "They've been able to successfully restrict these investigations to enlisted people no higher than staff sergeant. They can say, `We prosecuted and got convictions,' but what it's really doing is diverting people from who's really responsible."

Even if orders were unclear, prosecutors said, Smith's actions went further than authorized, including taking an unmuzzled dog into cells and using it to snatch hoods off prisoners' heads and terrify them. Smith was found guilty in the cases in which there was testimony that he went beyond normal use of military dogs.

"This case isn't a case about a lack of instructions or guidance," said Maj. Christopher Graveline, one of the prosecutors, during closing arguments Friday. "It's about when a soldier consciously decides to use his military working dog, his partner and weapon, as a toy - a toy to horrify detainees and a toy to get laughs from fellow soldiers."

A sentencing hearing began yesterday afternoon at Fort Meade and could end today. Smith has attended the court-martial in his dress green uniform, and stood at attention and stared straight ahead as the verdict was read.

The verdict was announced after 18 hours of deliberations by a seven-member panel composed of four officers and three enlisted soldiers. The same panel will determine Smith's sentence. They heard yesterday from his parents and other character witnesses.

Smith gave an unsworn statement during the hearing yesterday and was unrepentant. He told the jury that he wished he had learned how to "CYA," a euphemism for cover your backside. Soldiers who don't "end up in a heap of trouble," he said.

Prosecutors said that in late 2003 and early 2004, Smith allowed his unmuzzled Belgian shepherd to bark and growl at detainees and assaulted prisoners by using the dog to threaten and harass them. They said he also used the dog in indecent acts in which it licked peanut butter off the genitals of other soldiers.

The jury found Smith guilty of two counts of maltreating detainees, one count of conspiring with a soldier to use their dogs to make detainees urinate and defecate on themselves, and one count each of dereliction of duty, assault and committing an indecent act.

The presiding judge dismissed the assault conviction yesterday afternoon, saying it duplicated the maltreatment charge. Smith had been charged with 13 counts.

"The jury sent an important message that using unmuzzled dogs to threaten detainees is prohibited conduct and Sergeant Smith should have known better," said Avi Cover, an attorney for Human Rights First who observed the trial. "What I think this mixed verdict makes clear is, there's more than enough blame to go around."

Smith's defense argued that he was doing his best to follow confusing orders on the use of his dog in a chaotic prison, and that his alleged crime of allowing the dog to bark at detainees is exactly why dogs were sent to Abu Ghraib in the first place.

"The government wants you to believe that Sergeant Smith was part of this rogue band of detainees who went about Abu Ghraib tormenting detainees for their pleasure," said defense lawyer Capt. Mary G. McCarthy in closing arguments Friday. "Sergeant Smith is not a criminal. Sergeant Smith is a kid from Florida who raised his right hand and took an oath to defend his country."

Testimony during the weeklong trial focused on confusion over how dogs were to be used at the prison. Pappas said he approved the use of muzzled dogs outside of interrogation rooms. Dogs arrived at Abu Ghraib after a visit from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, former commander of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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