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U.S. Soldier Convicted In Iraqi Prison Abuse Case

19 May 2004 -- A U.S. military court in Baghdad today handed down a one-year jail sentence to the first American soldier to be tried over the Abu Ghurayb prisoner-abuse scandal.

The court sentenced Jeremy Sivits -- a noncommissioned soldier in the U.S. military police -- to one year of confinement and ordered him discharged from the military for bad conduct.

U.S. Central Command spokeswoman Colonel Jill Morgenthaler announced the verdict at a news briefing in Baghdad today.

"The military judge found Specialist [Jeremy] Sivits guilty of the charges in accordance with his pleas and sentenced him to reduction to Private, [grade] E-1, a bad conduct discharge and one year of confinement," Morgenthaler said.

The one-year jail sentence is the maximum term that could be handed down by today's "special court-martial" -- a military court that handles midlevel infractions.

Sivits was found guilty of maltreatment of detainees and dereliction of duty for failing to protect prisoners from abuse. He also was found guilty of maltreating one prisoner by escorting him "to be positioned in a pile on the floor to be assaulted by other soldiers."

The 24-year-old Sivits had admitted guilt in a bid for leniency and has agreed to testify against six other defendants charged with abuse at Abu Ghurayb. Their trial dates have not yet been fixed.

The abuse of the prisoners -- which included forcing them to engage in sexually humiliating acts -- was disclosed in photographs published by the international media late last month.

Public interest in today's trial was intense, and U.S. authorities opened the proceedings to Iraqi and foreign media. For the trial, military authorities constructed a makeshift courtroom in the Baghdad convention center, which is near the heavily fortified compound of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Several hundred Iraqis demonstrated today near the convention center to demand access to the trial for abuse victims and Iraqi lawyers.

One of the protesters, Mustapha al-Hitti of the Peace and Fraternity Party, said letting Iraqi lawyers participate would have been a sign of a fair trial:

"If the regime has changed, then the criminal methods of torturing detainees should be stopped and the occupying forces should know that these are Iraqi people and that there should be a fair trial and that Iraqi lawyers should attend," al-Hitti said.

Earlier today, three other soldiers charged along with Sivits appeared before the court to hear the charges against them and to decide whether to plead guilty or not guilty.

All three chose to defer their pleas to a later date as their lawyers asked for more time to prepare their cases. The judge set their next pre-trial hearing for 21 June.

The photographs of prisoners at Abu Ghurayb being abused by U.S. soldiers sparked international outrage and a political crisis for Washington.

U.S. President George W. Bush has expressed regret over the suffering of the prisoners and their families. He also has said the abuse is the work of a few soldiers violating normal military procedures.

He put his feeling this way in a speech earlier this month:

"People in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent. They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent America that I know," Bush said.

But the crisis has continued to grow in recent weeks as several human rights organizations have said that abuse of prisoners in Iraq was widespread.

The U.S. daily "The Wall Street Journal" this month quoted a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) detailing abuse and violations of human rights law in U.S.-run Iraqi detention centers.

The ICRC says it drew up the confidential report after visits to jails between March and November 2003 and handed it to U.S. authorities in February.