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Iraq: First U.S. Soldier To Face Military Trial Over Abuse Scandal

(file photo) 10 May 2004 -- The first of seven U.S. soldiers charged with abusing detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghurayb prison is set to be court martialed next week.

The U.S. Defense Department announced that the court martial of Specialist Jeremy Sivits will begin on 19 May in Baghdad. It will be held in public in a complex inside the "Green Zone," the heavily protected headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition.

Speaking in Baghdad yesterday, U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said Sivits faces several charges. They carry a maximum possible sentence of one year's imprisonment, a reduction in rank, partial docking of pay, and dishonorable discharge from the military. "Relating to Abu Ghurayb, on [5 May], charges were referred against Specialist Jeremy Sivits to a special court martial empowered to judge a bad-conduct discharge," he said. "The three charges against Specialist Sivits are: conspiracy to maltreat subordinates and detainees; dereliction of duty for negligently failing to protect detainees from abuse, cruelty and maltreatment; and maltreatment of detainees."

Photos published last week of Iraqi prisoners being abused in U.S. custody have sparked international outrage.

U.S. lawmakers say the most repulsive photos have yet to be released and insist that the U.S. Army investigation should have repercussions for higher-ups, not just the military police accused of abusing detainees.
Sivits, who is a mechanic by training, is alleged to have taken many of the photos of abuse at Abu Ghurayb. The photos show U.S. soldiers piling naked and hooded detainees on top of one another or posing them to simulate sex acts. New pictures emerged on 9 May of dogs apparently menacing a naked detainee.

Sivits will have access to a military defense attorney and may also retain a civilian attorney. He will also be able to choose whether he is tried in front of a single military judge or a three-person panel of senior military officers.

Sivits is one of seven soldiers facing charges but appears to be a lesser figure in the case. Others are likely to face a general court martial, which can give more severe punishments than the "special" court martial that will try Sivits. His trial could produce evidence for prosecuting others believed more culpable.

U.S. officials hope to demonstrate resolve in prosecuting those apparently responsible for the scandal, which threatens to undermine the U.S. mission in Iraq and President George W. Bush's re-election chances.

But the court martial trials appear unlikely to satisfy many in Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Shi'a cleric leading an anti-U.S. insurgency in the south, has warned of reprisals if those suspected of abuse are not tried by an independent court.

Muhammad Fadhil was one of several Iraqis on the streets of central Baghdad who told Reuters they would oppose any trial of U.S. suspects by a U.S. court. "They should be tried by Iraqi courts and not by an American court. We reject such a thing. They should stand trial by Iraqi court," he said.

On 7 May, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had repeatedly demanded last year that U.S. officials correct the problems at Abu Ghurayb and other prisons. Pierre Kraehenbuel, the Red Cross operations director in Geneva, said the abuse was systemic and not just the result of individual acts.

Seymour Hersh of "New Yorker" magazine was one of the reporters who broke the abuse story. He told reporters in Washington that he believes the abuse may have been the result of a policy decided at top levels, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who faces calls for his resignation.

"Let's see, he [U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld] learned about it [the Iraqi prison abuse] in January and he didn't bother to look at the pictures until a few days before he testified [before Congress]? It seems to me then he spent the last four months sort of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Hersh said.

U.S. lawmakers say the most repulsive photos have yet to be released and insist that the U.S. Army investigation should have repercussions for higher-ups, not just the military police accused of abusing detainees. Sivits was not deployed to Iraq as a military policeman and reportedly had no training for his role at Abu Ghurayb. His father told U.S. media last week, "Why was a mechanic allowed to handle prisoners?"

More and more Iraqis are now coming forward to allege abuse by U.S. soldiers. Kimmitt said all allegations would be investigated and that if the evidence is sufficient, further charges will be brought. He added, however, that U.S. authorities have no intention of closing down Abu Ghurayb, notorious as a place of torture and abuse under former President Saddam Hussein.

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