A U.S. military jury cleared a Navy SEAL Thursday of failing to prevent the beating of an Iraqi prisoner suspected of masterminding a 2004 attack that killed four American security contractors.
The contractors' burned bodies were dragged through the streets and two were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates river in the former insurgent hotbed of Fallujah, in what became a major turning point in the Iraq war.
The trial of three SEALs, the Navy's elite special forces unit, has outraged many Americans who see it as coddling terrorists.
Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas, 28, of Blue Island, Illinois, was found not guilty by a six-man jury of charges of dereliction of duty and attempting to influence the testimony of another service member.
The jury spent two hours deliberating the verdict.
Huertas is the first of three SEALS to face a court-martial for charges related to the abuse incident. All three SEALs could have received only a disciplinary reprimand, but insisted on a military trial to clear their names and save their careers.
The trial stems from an attack on four Blackwater security contractors who were driving through the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad in early 2004. The images of the bodies hanging from the bridge drove home to many the rising power of the insurgency and helped spark a bloody U.S. invasion of the city to root out the insurgents later that year.
The Iraqi prisoner who was allegedly abused, Ahmed Hashim Abed, testified Wednesday on the opening day of the trial at the U.S. military's Camp Victory on Baghdad's western outskirts that he was beaten by U.S. troops while hooded and tied to a chair.
Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin DeMartino, who was assigned to process and transport the prisoner and is not a SEAL, testified he saw one SEAL punch the prisoner in the stomach and watched blood spurt from his mouth. Huertas and the third SEAL were in the narrow holding-room at the time of the incident, he added.
But defense attorneys tried to cast doubt on the beating claims, showing photographs of Abed after the alleged beating in which he had a visible cut inside his lip but no obvious signs of bruising or injuries anywhere else.
In her closing arguments, Huertas' civilian attorney Monica Lombardi pointed to inconsistencies between DeMartino's testimony and nearly every other Navy witness. She also reminded the jury of the terrorism charges against Abed, who is in Iraqi custody and has not yet been tried, saying he could not be trusted and may have inflicted wounds on himself as a way of recasting blame on American troops.
But prosecutor Lt. Cmdr. Jason Grover said DeMartino said the SEALs were itching to abuse Abed as payback for the killings of the Blackwater guards — two of whom were former SEALs.