FORT HOOD, Texas – The alleged ringleader of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal went on trial Monday with witnesses telling a military court they watched him punch an Iraqi inmate in the face and saw him laugh while forcing prisoners to pose naked.
Spc. Charles Graner Jr. is the first soldier accused in the scandal to go on trial. His case is an important test of an argument put forth by defense attorneys that the soldiers were ordered to soften up detainees for interrogators and had no choice but to obey.
A military guard testified Monday that he saw Graner punch an Iraqi detainee in the face a moment after a notorious photo was taken at Abu Ghraib prison.
Another witness said Graner was "laughing and having a good time" while making naked prisoners pose.
Spc. Matthew Wisdom, the first witness in Graner’s prisoner abuse court-martial, said Graner was among a number of guards who roughed up detainees on Nov. 7, 2003.
Wisdom described a prominent photo from Abu Ghraib that showed the muscular Graner holding a prisoner as if he were about to strike him in the face.
The witness said Graner cocked his arm while the picture was taken, and then he punched the prisoner.
Wisdom said he was urged to participate in abuse, but that he instead reported it to his immediate superior.
"I was very upset," he said. "It made me kind of sick, almost. It didn’t seem right."
Graner, a 36-year-old former prison guard from Uniontown, Pa., is charged with conspiracy to maltreat Iraqi detainees, assault, dereliction of duty and committing indecent acts.
An all-male jury of four Army officers and six senior enlisted men will decide his fate in what is expected to be a weeklong trial. If convicted on all counts, he faces up to 17 1/2 years in a military prison.
Under military law, a conviction requires guilty votes by seven of the 10 jurors, all of whom have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Wisdom testified that he did not see Graner when a naked Iraqi was allegedly forced to masturbate. The incident is the basis of one of the maltreatment charges against Graner.
That was supported by Pvt. Ivan Frederick, who told the court that he was the one who initiated that episode.
Frederick is a former staff sergeant who last summer was sentenced to eight years in prison for his actions at Abu Ghraib, which included punching a detainee hard enough in the chest to require medical attention. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to testify against Graner.
Under cross-examination, Frederick said Graner was on another floor of the prison during the masturbation incident.
But another member of the 372nd Military Police Company said Graner was not only there, but that the defendant photographed a simulated oral sex scene.
Pvt. Jeremy Sivits, who in May pleaded guilty to taking part in abuse, said Graner was in charge of stacking naked prisoners into a human pyramid with which he later posed for pictures.
"He was trying to get the job done, but he was also laughing and having a good time," said Sivits, who told the court that his testimony against Graner was part of his plea deal.
Sivits received the maximum sentence of one year in prison, a reduction in rank and a bad conduct discharge.
Army prosecutor Maj. Michael Holley conceded during opening statements that there were problems at Abu Ghraib, but that those difficulties did not justify Graner’s actions. "Anyone would say, ‘that’s illegal, that’s beyond the pale,’" he said.
Defense lawyer Guy Womack said Graner and his comrades were rewarded. "The more aggressive they became, the more information they got and the more praise they got," he said.
Frederick testified during cross-examination that he and the other guards, including Graner, took orders mostly from military and civilian intelligence officers who encouraged rough treatment of detainees as a way to get useful information.
He said the guards received no training in handling prisoners with intelligence value, and that their actions were not closely watched.
Two other members of Graner’s unit who have made plea deals are scheduled to testify against him.
Three more soldiers from the 372nd also are awaiting trial at Fort Hood. One is Lynndie England, who in October gave birth to a child who Army prosecutors say was the result of a relationship with Graner.