updated 11/2/2004 10:20:35 PM ET 2004-11-03T03:20:35

A Marine major acted cruelly in ordering a subordinate to drag an Iraqi prisoner by the neck and leave the man in a holding pen where he later died, a military prosecutor said Tuesday during the opening statements of the officer’s court-martial.

The defense argued that Maj. Clarke Paulus’ actions were justified because the prisoner was resistant.

The court-martial for Paulus began at Camp Pendleton more than a year after Nagen Sadoon Hatab died at a Marine detention facility known as Camp Whitehorse in southern Iraq.

“What this case is about is how Maj. Paulus was cruel and inhumane to that prisoner of war,” prosecutor Maj. Leon Francis told a jury of eight senior officers selected from a pool of 12 earlier in the day.

Up to 4½ years in prison if convicted
Paulus, who was in charge of the Camp Whitehorse jail, faces up to 4½ years in prison if convicted of aggravated assault, maltreatment and dereliction of duty.

Defense attorney Keith Higgins said that Paulus’ actions were reasonable because the officer was dealing with an uncooperative prisoner whom he believed was faking illness.

“His actions were not unjustified, they were rational. They were not unnecessary, they were reasonable,” Higgins said.

Paulus, 35, is the last of nine Marines to face charges relating to Hatab’s death.

The 52-year-old Iraqi was brought to Camp Whitehorse in June 2003 as a suspect in the attack on the Army convoy that killed 11 soldiers and led to the capture of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and others.

An Army pathologist found a broken bone in Hatab’s throat that led her to rule he had been strangled, making it the first homicide in U.S. prisons in Iraq. But the pathologist’s mishandling of medical evidence collected from Hatab’s body has become an asset key for the defense.

Missing evidence
Hatab’s rib cage and larynx vanished, only to resurface a year later at military labs on two continents. No one knows what became of the most crucial piece of evidence — the broken throat bone that strongly suggested strangulation.

On Monday, Marine Col. Robert Chester, the military judge hearing Paulus’ case, announced he was barring medical evidence from the trial, including the cause of death. Medical evidence showing the cause of death is crucial to prosecutors’ chances of convicting Paulus of the most serious charge, aggravated assault.

Most of the Marines had their cases dismissed in large part because of the breakdown in forensic evidence that has marred the case.

The sole conviction came in September, when a military panel sentenced Marine Sgt. Gary Pittman to 60 days hard labor and demoted him to private for dereliction of duty and abuse of prisoners. Pittman was acquitted of assaulting Hatab.

Prosecutors are expected to call the first of an expected 20 witnesses on Wednesday.

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