updated 8/24/2004 4:39:24 PM ET 2004-08-24T20:39:24

A Marine accused of karate-kicking a handcuffed Iraqi POW who later died believed it was his role to show prisoners “who’s boss” and to soften them up for interrogation, a prosecutor said Tuesday as the court-martial got under way.

But defense attorneys said during opening arguments that Sgt. Gary Pittman was too sick at the time Nagem Hatab was injured to have harmed him.

Pittman, 40, could get two years in a military prison if found guilty of assault and dereliction of duty in what is believed to be the first court-martial connected to the death of a prisoner in Iraq.

Prosecutor Maj. Leon Frances told the jury of nine Marine officers that Pittman kneed, kicked and punched Hatab and other Iraqi prisoners “just as a reprisal and just because he was angry with them.”

Frances said that when an interpreter objected to Pittman’s actions, Pittman responded, “These prisoners need to know who’s boss.”

The prosecutor also said guards will testify that a special military interrogation team had asked members of Pittman’s unit to soften up the prisoners for interrogation.

Defendant was ill, defense claims
Defense lawyer Capt. Anders Folk argued that Pittman was suffering from diarrhea and too weak to injure Hatab. He suggested another Marine, Lance Cpl. William Roy, may have caused the injuries when he allegedly grabbed the inmate by the throat.

Folk also said two Marines will testify that Hatab did not complain of any pain after the alleged assault and that a pathologist will testify Hatab’s injuries could not have resulted from a single kick.

Folk said Pittman’s unit performed “a difficult and dangerous mission that they never got training for. ... They did a great job.”

Hatab, 52, is among 37 Iraqi and Afghan prisoners whose deaths are under investigation.

Hatab had been rumored to be an official of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and part of the ambush of a U.S. Army convoy that left 11 soldiers dead and led to the capture of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and five others.

Dead within days of arrest
Within two days of Hatab’s arrest in June 2003, a guard found his lifeless, naked body covered in his own waste in a yard at Camp Whitehorse, a makeshift lockup outside Nasiriyah.

According to a Lance Cpl. Roy, who has been granted immunity, Pittman, who in civilian life was a federal prison guard, karate-kicked the handcuffed, hooded Hatab in the chest so hard that he flew three feet before hitting the floor.

An autopsy concluded that Hatab had seven broken ribs and slowly suffocated from a crushed windpipe. Defense lawyers say Hatab died of natural causes, perhaps from an asthma attack.

A general court-martial is to begin next month for Maj. Clarke Paulus, who commanded the detention center and allegedly authorized a Marine to grab Hatab by the neck to drag him to a holding pen. Whitehorse base commander Maj. Michael Froeder faces charges of negligence and abuse of prisoners.

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