updated 10/18/2004 6:19:04 PM ET 2004-10-18T22:19:04

The Army has extended active duty for 14 potential witnesses in the criminal trials of fellow reservists accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners, military officials said Monday.

While other members of the Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company have returned to their civilian lives, the potential witnesses have been retained until their original two-year call-up orders expire on Feb. 22, said Army spokeswoman Maj. Elizabeth Robbins.

Seven members of the Cresaptown-based company were charged after the release of photos showing soldiers from the unit humiliating detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

Pfc. Lynndie England, the reservist seen in some of the most notorious photos, faces a January court-martial.

The potential witnesses, who returned from Iraq in August, are stationed at Fort Lee, Va.
Robbins said the decision to keep them on active duty originated with Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commander of ground forces in Iraq, and was approved by acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee.

Asked if the decision, first reported in The (Baltimore) Sun, was a common Army practice, Robbins replied: “It is not.”

Not a normal thing
“We took extraordinary care in making the request,” she said. “We take seriously that we are asking these individuals to stay on active duty to perform an extremely important duty. This is not a normal thing. We want to do the right thing here.”

Robbins said there had been no decision on whether the soldiers would be retained past Feb. 22. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” she said.

Eugene Fidell, a specialist in military law and president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said the government has other ways to compel the testimony of witnesses at trial, including obtaining an enforceable court order.

“I think this was done for convenience, to basically make sure the people are available,” said Fidell, who teaches military justice at Harvard Law School. “But I can think of few better ways to alienate witnesses on whose testimony you might have to rely than to basically put their lives on hold.”

One soldier from the 372nd, Spc. Jeremy Sivits, is serving a one-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in May to three charges. Another member of the unit, Staff Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick, plans to plead guilty Wednesday to four charges, said his attorney, Gary Myers.

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