The first in a series of courts-martial in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse allegations will begin next week, trials that could bring new revelations on whether the mistreatment of Iraqis was an aberration or stemmed from pressure from commanders.
Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits of Hyndman, Pa., a member of the 372nd Military Police Company, will face a military court in Baghdad on May 19, less than a month after photos of prisoners being abused and humiliated were first broadcast April 28. He is believed to have taken some of the photographs that triggered the scandal.
Both the speed of the trial’s scheduling and the location, in the Iraqi capital, underscore the military’s realization that it must demonstrate resolve in prosecuting those responsible for a scandal that threatens to undermine the U.S. mission in Iraq and Bush’s re-election chances.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of operations for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, said the proceedings would be held in the Baghdad Convention Center and would be open to media coverage, although he indicated that TV cameras would not be allowed in court.
“It has not been our practice in the past to have cameras inside,” he said.
The U.S. military normally allows family members, observers and print reporters to attend trials, Kimmitt said at a briefing.
Sivits “will be tried in an open hearing,” Kimmitt said on NBC’s “Today” show. “To suggest that it’s somehow public would give the indication that this is a show trial. No."
“The media will be allowed in the way the media is allowed in any open court-martial, which is the way we have been doing business for quite some time,” he said.
Secondary figure goes first
Sivits is one of seven soldiers facing charges but appears to be a lesser figure in the case. Some of the others will likely face a general court-martial, which can give more severe punishments than the “special” court-martial that will try Sivits. His trial could produce evidence for prosecuting others who are believed to have been more culpable.
Asked whether the special court-martial meant Sivits was cooperating with authorities and would testify against others, Kimmitt said, “No, I don’t think it says that at all.”
“I think what it says is that the convening authority, Lt. Gen. [Thomas] Metz, took a very hard look at what the investigators brought forward, what the chain of command said about this young man and what the lawyers brought forward, and in his view, this was the most appropriate method by which to prosecute the crimes for which he is being accused,” Kimmitt said on “Today.”
Sivits is believed to have taken some of the photos that triggered the scandal. His father, Daniel Sivits, said last month that his son “was told to take a picture, and he did what he was told.” He said his son trained as a mechanic but found himself performing military police work for which he was unqualified.
The family said it had no comment Sunday morning.
Sivits was charged with conspiracy to mistreat detainees, dereliction of duty for failing to protect prisoners and maltreatment of detainees. Seven officers have received career-ending reprimands.
If convicted, Sivits could face any or all of a year in prison, reduction in rank to private, forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for a year, a fine or a discharge for bad conduct.
Sivits, who will be able to choose between trial before a single military judge or a three-member panel of senior officers, has the right to a civilian attorney and will have access to military counsel.
Military intelligence in cross-hairs
Another soldier facing charges, Spc. Sabrina Harman, said she and other members of the 372nd Military Police Company took direction from Army military intelligence officers, CIA operatives and civilian contractors who conducted interrogations.
In an interview by e-mail from Baghdad, Harman told The Washington Post that it was made clear that her mission was to break down the prisoners.
“They would bring in one to several prisoners at a time already hooded and cuffed,” Harman said. “The job of the MP was to keep them awake, make it hell so they would talk.”
Harman, 26, is one of two smiling soldiers seen in a photo taken at Abu Ghraib as they stand behind naked, hooded Iraqi prisoners stacked in a pyramid.
In September, an expert team sent by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, head of the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, visited Abu Ghraib and recommended that guards help gather intelligence about detainees.
On Nov. 19, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. operations in Iraq, issued an order taking tactical control of Abu Ghraib away from the MPs and turning it over to the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, The New Yorker magazine reported Sunday.
That policy went into effect over the objections of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, another military prison expert, who said the change was “not doctrinally sound due to the different missions and agendas assigned to each of these respective specialties,” the story said.
Miller, who in April was brought in to head Abu Ghraib in the wake of the scandal, defended his team’s recommendations, saying last week that MPs’ role in intelligence gathering was supposed to be only from “passive” observation, and he blamed Abu Ghraib’s leadership for not following military guidelines.
Iraqis to get control of prisons
Miller, who was reassigned to head U.S. detention centers in Iraq last month, said the military had no plans to close Abu Ghraib. But Dan Senor, a spokesman for the coalition, said Monday that operational control over the notorious facility Abu Ghraib would be negotiated after Iraqis regain some sovereignty June 30.
Some Iraqi officials have called for an Iraqi role in the operation of Abu Ghraib and other detention centers.
Miller said Sunday that the United States did intend to cut the number of prisoners to help improve conditions. Kimmitt said Sunday that 325 prisoners had been released from various detention centers over the last two weeks.
Sivits is only the first soldier to go to trial. The Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps said Monday that four other pretrial hearings known as Article 32s, which are similar to a civilian grand jury proceedings, had resulted in a recommendation that four others face courts-martial.
The names of the accused soldiers and their charges have not been made available.
Iraqis freed from U.S. custody since the war began in March 2003 have long told of abusive treatment, including lying bound in the sun for hours, being attacked by dogs, being deprived of water and being left hooded for days.
U.S. lawmakers have warned that the most repulsive photos have yet to be released and have insisted that the Army investigation should have repercussions for higher-ups, not just the MPs accused of abusing detainees.