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Court-Martial of Spc. Jeremy Sivits

May 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: This is Hyndman, Pa., a small town of about 1,000 people, and home to Army Spc. Jeremy Sivits. He’s the 24-year-old military police reservist who today faced a special court-martial in Baghdad for taking photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. Sivits will spend one year in prison, have his rank reduced to private, and be discharged from the military service. Sivits agreed to plead guilty to a total of four counts of abuse: Two counts of mistreating detainees; dereliction of duty; and conspiracy to maltreat.

He’s the first of seven charged in the abuse scandal. Three others appeared in a Baghdad courtroom today, and waived their rights to have charges read aloud. That defers their pleas until another hearing on June 21. They are: Sgt. Javal Davis; Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick; and Spc. Charles Graner, also from the 372nd military police company based in Cresaptown, Md. Graner faces the most severe charges, seven in all: cruelty; maltreatment; adultery; dereliction of duty; assault; indecent acts; and obstruction of justice. Frederick and Davis face five charges each. Graner’s lawyer appeared on Good Morning America today, and said his client was ordered do the things depicted in the photographs.

GUY WOMACK: The military intelligence officers, other government agencies — a euphemism for CIA — and other civilian contract-intelligence officers were present. They were directing everything to be done. The photographs were being staged and created by these intelligence officers. And of course we have the two photographs that prove that they were present and supervising it.

TERENCE SMITH: The dates of courts-martial for the three women charged with abuse are yet to be announced. They are Private-First Class Lynndie England and Specialists Sabrina Harman and Megan Ambuhl. England defended her participation in a photograph in which she is seen holding a naked prisoner on a leash, in a recent interview with a Denver television station.

PFC. LYNNDIE ENGLAND: I was instructed by persons in higher ranks to stand there, hold this leash, look at the camera. They took a picture for psy-ops, that’s all I knew.

TERENCE SMITH: As for Sivits, residents of his hometown defended him and others involved.

MAYOR DELMAR BILLER, Hyndman, Pa.: My opinion is that they was only carrying out orders; they was ordered to do this from higher ups. These young people did not do that on their own. They was carrying out orders.

TERENCE SMITH: Sivits is expected to testify against the others under a plea agreement, and will serve his sentence at an undisclosed facility. Today’s proceedings were open to the news media, and Dexter Filkins of The New York Times was there. I spoke with him earlier.

TERENCE SMITH: Dexter Filkins, tell us what it was like in that courtroom today.

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, it was really remarkable. I mean here you had this young, really young guy from a little town in Appalachia in the middle of a courtroom in Iraq. He’s just pouring out his heart on the witness stand saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do this. I should have stopped. I should have stopped those abuses. I should have helped the detainees and I’ve let down my family. I’ve let down the Army. I’ve let down the country. I apologize to the Iraqi people. I apologize to the detainees. All they ever wanted was to be — all I ever wanted was to be an American soldier.”

TERENCE SMITH: Was he emotional?

DEXTER FILKINS: He was emotional. At one point — his voice cracked several times, I should say. The first time he was describing watching Corporal Graner punch one of the detainees so hard he said that he thought he had gone into cardiac arrest. And at that point, his voice started to crack, and it kept cracking throughout the rest of his testimony.

TERENCE SMITH: What was the scene like around him in the courtroom? Was it crowded? Were there a lot of news organizations represented?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, it was a very plain, institutional room deep inside the American compound here. It was a small room. There was only about 70 people in it; I’d say about a third of those were reporters. Probably, you know, ten or 15 of them were Iraqi reporters. But for the most part, it was closed to the public, and I have to say it was … it’s a shame that the thing wasn’t televised because — particularly televised here in Iraq. It was a really remarkable thing to see, and, you know, the American legal system is a remarkable institution, and it would have really been — I think it could have really done a lot of good if people could have seen what happened today.

TERENCE SMITH: What did the judge have to say when he sentenced him, particularly in response to this contrite set of remarks by Sivits himself?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well Judge Paul was very, I mean very, very clipped, quick. I mean, this entire trial from opening arguments to the sentencing lasted about four hours. It was very fast, and he didn’t really say much at all. But what was really remarkable about this military trial as opposed to a trial you would see in a regular courtroom, was the judge was just having a dialogue with the defendant. And, you know, more than once, he said to the defendant, “Now when you saw that, you knew it was wrong, didn’t you?” And Specialist Sivits would say “yes, I did, I knew it was wrong.” The judge would say “well, then why did you do it?” He’d say “Well, I don’t know, because they asked me to.” “But you knew it was wrong?” “No doubt, sir. No doubt.”

TERENCE SMITH: Well, that point of “they asked me to.” He did testify to that effect, did he not? And also that one of the other accused had said to him that he had received orders from military intelligence to do what he did?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s two separate points. One is, you know, he’s basically accused here of sort of not helping the detainees when he saw the abuse happening, and then taking a picture of, you know, one of these terrible pyramids with the stripped Iraqis in it. And he took the picture, and basically his explanation was, you know, “I took the picture because he asked me to.” But as to your other question, which was very interesting. He said he had been told by some of the people in the room who were doing the majority of the abusing of these Iraqi detainees, he had been told that they had been ordered by military intelligence to do these things. He said “they told me, you know, this stuff is working, keep it up. The detainees are talking. It’s great.”

TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned the news organizations in the courtroom, but I gather that no human rights organizations were allowed to have observers there. Is that right?

DEXTER FILKINS: I think there was one. There was one Iraqi representative of an organization there, but I have to say that it was a bit puzzling. I mean, you didn’t see groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. I think Human Rights Watch in particular was particularly angry about being excluded. You know, there were empty seats in the courtroom. There was a demonstration outside — mostly Iraqis, maybe 100 or so. I think people were — some of the people were holding up big, you know, enlarged photos of, you know, showing the scenes of abuses in the prison.

TERENCE SMITH: Were you there when other three accused appeared, and I gather, waived their right to have the charges read aloud?

DEXTER FILKINS: I did. I was there, and I have to say not very much happened. But there was one interesting moment, one very interesting moment when it was the attorney, I think, for Davis, told Judge Paul that he had been trying to interview detainees of the prison who were likely to be witnesses against his defendants that he had been — he was being prevented by the government from interviewing those witnesses. Now, you know, a lot is often said in pre-trial, but that was interesting, and the judge, you know, his eyebrows went up and he said, you know, “equal access for everybody here.” And you could tell he was intrigued. I think all those parties in that case are coming back in about a month to sort of start again.

TERENCE SMITH: What happens next? I take it that Sivits is expected to testify against some of the others?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yeah, I mean that’s it. That was the condition of his — it was basically a plea bargain today. He has sort of immunity for whatever he says in court, but it was — if you just listened to what he said today in court, I mean, the really graphic — not just the graphic descriptions of what they did, but even just some of the dialogue, it was pretty powerful stuff and pretty incriminating. I mean, I think at one point he was talking about Corporal Graner punching a guy, right in the temple, really hard, basically knocking the Iraqi detainee out. And he said, “boy, that hurt.” And the judge said, “was he talking about the Iraqi detainee?” And Specialist Sivits said, “no, no, he was talk about his wrist. He hurt his wrist.”

TERENCE SMITH: Well, there is obviously more to come. Dexter Filkins, thank you so much.

DEXTER FILKINS: Thanks a lot.