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Judge allows questioning of top generals in prison scandal

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Top U.S. generals can be questioned about the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, a military judge ruled Monday during court hearings for three American soldiers charged in the scandal.

Col. James Pohl also ordered the notorious prison west of Baghdad to be preserved as a crime scene despite President Bush's offer to demolish it in recognition of prisoners' suffering under the former Iraqi regime and at the hands of American military police.

The judge ruled in favor of defense attorneys, who argued that the Bush administration's war on terrorism had created a culture of disregard for wartime rules on prisoner treatment. The attorneys said their clients, military police officers shown in graphic abuse photos, were following orders from superiors to "soften up" inmates for interrogation by the intelligence officers in charge of the prison during the past year.

The judge's ruling means that Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of American troops in Iraq, must make themselves available for interviews that later could be used in court-martial proceedings. The generals could refuse to comply, invoking the military's equivalent of the Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

In addition, Pohl allowed for classified parts of an internal Army report to be admitted in court. The judge, however, denied requests that memos from U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials be handed over as evidence.

The hearings presented the first details of the defense strategy of painting the accused soldiers as scapegoats for the policies of superior officers. The accused—Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., Sgt. Javal S. Davis and Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick—said little in court and appeared somber.

"No one can suggest with a straight face that these MPs were acting alone," said Guy Womack, Graner's attorney.

"We will ask to have the president of the United States as a witness," he added. "Whether that's granted, that's a different story."

Davis' civilian lawyer, Paul Bergrin, said during a recess that he wants to question Bush and Rumsfeld about the prisoner abuse, though he didn't include the request in court motions. Bergrin said low-ranking troops at the prison were under intense pressure from the CIA and other agencies to adopt "Israeli methods," such as forced nudity to break down Arab Muslim detainees.

"We would like to interview Bush because we know as a matter of fact that President Bush changed the rules of engagement for intelligence acquisition" when he said the Geneva Conventions don't apply to suspected terrorists, Bergrin said.

Witness testimony during the six-hour court session in Baghdad offered little new evidence in the cases but provided a colorful indictment of the U.S.-led coalition's failure to bring stability to Iraq more than a year into the occupation.

Earlier investigative hearings were hindered because the military couldn't find a working telephone in a makeshift courthouse, two attorneys told the judge. One attorney tried to read his motions by flashlight when the power briefly shut off in the middle of Monday's proceedings. A witness said he couldn't track down alleged victims in the case in April because widespread violence prevented him from making the half-hour drive from his base to Abu Ghraib prison.

Attorneys for the three accused soldiers argued for a change of venue, fearing that witnesses in the United States wouldn't show up to testify in a war zone, where they have to sign a document outlining the rocket and grenade attacks they face. The judge turned down the requests, but said he would revisit the issue at later hearings.

Even one of the key defense attorneys, civilian Gary Myers, was a no show Monday because he refused to come to a "harrowing, dangerous war zone," according to a motion he filed. The infuriated judge, who had denied the lawyer's request to participate by telephone, delayed the hearing until July 23, but warned that Myers had better show up next time to represent Frederick.

"I don't care how many bombs are going off," Pohl said.

Seven soldiers attached to the 372nd Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit from Cresaptown, Md., are charged in the abuse scandal. Disturbing photos of the soldiers forcing Iraqi inmates into painful and sexually humiliating poses first surfaced in April on the TV show "60 Minutes II." Dozens of other photographs have since emerged, depicting more naked and hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Graner, of Uniontown, Pa., jumped on a human pyramid of detainees and struck one Iraqi man so hard he lost consciousness, according to the criminal complaint against him. He faces up to 24 { years in jail if convicted.

Frederick, of Buckingham, Va., forced prisoners to masturbate, piled detainees into a human pyramid and attached wires to a detainee, telling him he would be electrocuted, according to the military's charges. He could receive up to 16 { years in jail.

Davis, of Maryland, is accused of maltreatment of prisoners, stomping on their hands and feet and helping pile up detainees to be assaulted by other soldiers. His maximum sentence is 8 { years in jail.

If convicted, the three also face forfeiture of pay, reduction in rank and dishonorable discharges from the military. One defendant, Spc. Jeremy Sivits, pleaded guilty in May. He was sentenced to a year in prison and is expected to testify against the others.

A hearing for another soldier charged in the abuse, Pfc. Lynndie England, was scheduled to begin Tuesday at Fort Bragg, N.C., where she's stationed, but was postponed until the week of July 12. England's face was broadcast around the world in photos that showed her pointing to a nude prisoner's genitals and holding a dog leash attached to an Iraqi prisoner's neck.

The military hasn't decided whether to refer two other soldiers who were present during alleged abuses to courts-martial.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.