The shocking abuse and sexual humiliation that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004 was the work of "corrupt cops" who acted for their own enjoyment and without the sanction of their commanders, according to the military's opening statement yesterday in the court-martial of an Army dog handler.
Military prosecutor Maj. Matthew Miller said Sgt. Santos A. Cardona allowed his dog to bite a detainee at the Iraqi prison and participated in a game with another dog handler in which they used their dogs to frighten detainees until they soiled themselves.
"This case is about cops who were trained better and who knew better and decided to abuse detainees for fun and games on the night shift at Abu Ghraib," Miller said in his opening remarks in a small military courtroom at Fort Meade.
Cardona's lawyers plan to call Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who commanded the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and visited Abu Ghraib in September 2003. Miller has not testified at any of the previous Abu Ghraib trials. According to testimony from two witnesses at a court-martial for one of Cardona's colleagues, while at Abu Ghraib Miller stressed the use of stronger interrogation techniques, including exploiting "the Arab fear of dogs."
Cardona, 32, of Fullerton, Calif., is charged with nine counts of assault, maltreatment of detainees, conspiracy and dereliction of duty. He faces up to 16 1/2 years in prison if convicted on all counts. He is the fifth military police soldier to stand trial for abuses at Abu Ghraib. Sentences for the other soldiers have ranged from six months to 10 years in prison.
Cardona's civilian lawyer, Harvey Volzer, said yesterday that Cardona had done his best to follow confusing orders in a dangerous, understaffed prison, and that the military dogs had done what they were supposed to do - scare the prisoners to keep them in line. "They bark, they growl," Volzer said in his opening statement. "Their whole reason to be there is to scare the prison population, and it's an effective tool."
Cardona's court-martial could help determine how far up the chain of command officials authorized the use of dogs and whether they knew how dogs were being used at Abu Ghraib. No commanding officers have been prosecuted in the abuse scandal.
"This could shine a light on who made decisions and how far up responsibility goes," said Hina Shamsi, who is observing the trial as senior counsel for Human Rights First, a New York-based human rights group. "There's not going to be an effective deterrent to abuse until you have that [high] level of command accountability."
The Abu Ghraib prosecutions have focused on low-ranking soldiers, such as Cardona and his dog-handler partner, Sgt. Michael J. Smith. In his court-martial two months ago, Smith was convicted of five counts of maltreatment and dereliction of duty and sentenced to six months in prison.
The military will use many of the same witnesses and evidence against Cardona that were used against Smith.
Prosecutors said yesterday that Cardona's use of his dog went beyond what was authorized by commanders. They described how he released his dog on one prisoner, who was bitten twice in the legs, and played a game in which his dog snatched hoods off prisoners. Cardona also allowed his dog to bark and snarl within inches of detainees' faces, the military alleges.
A military jury composed of four officers and three enlisted soldiers is hearing the court-martial.