US soldier Charles Graner, said to be the ringleader of a band of rogue guards at Baghdad’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, is facing up to 15 years behind bars today after being found guilty of abusing Iraqi detainees.
The case sparked international outrage when photographs were released that showed reservists gleefully humiliating prisoners.
Graner, 36, the first soldier to be court-martialled in the scandal, was convicted last night of all five charges. Four other soldiers previously pleaded guilty.
Graner stood at attention and looked straight ahead without expression as each verdict was read at Fort Hood, Texas. His parents, Charles and Irma Graner, held hands tightly as they listened.
The jury took less than five hours to reach the verdict, and began the sentencing phase early today.
The prosecution wrapped up its sentencing testimony quickly, but Graner’s lawyer called seven witnesses before testimony ended and planned at least two more later today. It was unclear whether Graner, who did not testify during the trial, would be one of them.
Iraqi detainee Hussein Mutar, in videotaped testimony shown during the sentencing phase, said he had supported the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein until he was abused.
“The Americans came to free the Iraqi people from Saddam,” Mutar said. “I didn’t expect this to happen. This instance changed the entire picture of the American people (for me).”
The verdict came after a five-day trial in which prosecutors depicted Graner as a sadistic soldier who took great pleasure in seeing detainees suffer.
“It was for sport, for laughs,” prosecutor Captain Chris Graveline told jurors in his closing argument. ”What we have here is plain abuse. There is no justification.”
Graner was accused of stacking naked prisoners in a human pyramid and later ordering them to masturbate while other soldiers took photographs. He also allegedly punched one man in the head hard enough to knock him out, and struck an injured prisoner with a collapsible metal stick.
His mother, testifying in the sentencing phase, described her son as a kind and gentle man who faithfully served his country.
“He is not the monster he’s made out to be,” she said. “In my eyes he’ll always be a hero.”
The jury of four Army officers and six senior enlisted men rejected the defence argument that Graner and other guards were merely following orders from intelligence agents at Abu Ghraib when they roughed up the detainees.
Graner, a reservist from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, faced 10 counts under five separate charges: Assault; conspiracy; maltreatment of detainees; committing indecent acts; and dereliction of duty.
He was found guilty on all counts, except that one assault count was downgraded to battery.
Each count required that at least seven of the 10 jurors to agree for conviction.
Graveline recounted the abuse allegations, buttressing many with photos and video taken inside the prison in October and November 2003.
One witness, Syrian prisoner Amin al-Sheikh, had characterised Graner as the “primary torturer” who whistled, sang and laughed while brutalising him and forced him to eat pork and drink alcohol against his Muslim faith.
Mutar, the Iraqi detainee, told the court that he was among a group of prisoners stripped by Graner and other Abu Ghraib guards, stacked up naked in a human pyramid while female soldiers watched, and later told to masturbate.
“I couldn’t imagine it in the beginning,” Mutar said. “I could kill myself because no one over there was stopping it from happening.”
Graner’s lawyer, Guy Womack, said his client and other Abu Ghraib guards were under extreme pressure from intelligence agents to use physical violence to prepare detainees for questioning.
“It was a persistent, consistent set of orders,” Womack said in his closing argument. “To soften up the detainees, to do things so we can interrogate them successfully in support of our mission. … We had men and women being killed.”
Womack reminded jurors that Saddam was not yet in US custody when the alleged abuse happened.
“There was somebody very important on everybody’s mind,” Womack said. “Wouldn’t it be logical to have your interrogators use pressure to get information to try to find him?”
He also tried to imply that Graner and the other low-level guards were being used in a cover-up to protect Army officers once those photos went public.
The shocking photos of reservists abusing and sexually humiliating prisoners were first broadcast on CBS’s 60 Minutes II last April. The photos showed naked detainees posed in sexual positions, hooked to electrodes and tethered to a leash.
A month later, President George Bush urged defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to make sure that any guilty US soldiers were punished for “shameful and appalling acts”. Many critics called on Rumsfeld to step down in the aftermath of the scandal.
Graner did not testify during the trial, which included testimony from three guards who had made plea deals with prosecutors.
Graner’s demeanour at the beginning of the trial was upbeat, telling reporters at one point, “Whatever happens is going to happen, but I still feel it’s going to be on the positive side, and I’m going to have a smile on my face.” As the trial wore on, his expressions grew more stoic.
Two other guards from the 372nd Military Police Company, a reserve unit from Cresaptown, Maryland, are awaiting trial, along with Private Lynndie England, a clerk at Abu Ghraib who last fall gave birth to a baby believed to be fathered by Graner.