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U.S. soldier gets 1-year sentence in abuse of Iraqi prisoners

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. Army Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits, convicted Wednesday by a military court in Baghdad in connection with the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, gave a detailed account of what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Sivits told the court that on the evening of Nov. 8 another soldier invited him to visit "the hard site," a confinement area where Iraqi detainees accused of rioting in another cellblock were being held for interrogation. Other soldiers needed help escorting prisoners to the site.

Sivits took a detainee by the arm and led him to the room, where he saw naked detainees "just lying there on the floor, sandbags over their heads." Sgt. Javal Davis and Pfc. Lynndie England, two other soldiers accused of abusing detainees, were crushing the prisoners' hands and feet with their boots, Sivits told the judge.

Sivits said he pushed his detainee onto the pile of prisoners, even though he knew the man would be similarly assaulted. Army Cpl. Charles A. Graner jumped on top of the human pyramid, grabbed a prisoner around the neck and reached back as if to strike him, he said. At the request of Graner, Sivits said he captured the now-infamous moment with a digital camera.

Sivits testified that he saw two soldiers strike the prisoners, even though the men didn't resist the soldiers' commands. Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick II punched one prisoner in the chest, apparently sending the man into cardiac arrest, and Graner punched another inmate in the head, knocking him out, Sivits said. Graner complained, "Damn, that hurt," referring to his wrist after hitting the prisoner, Sivits said.

"It was bad enough that they were embarrassed to be in there, but what we were doing to them ... ," Sivits said, hanging his head and leaving his thought incomplete.

Seven naked prisoners were forced to line up against a wall as England joked about their penises, Sivits said. With a cigarette in her mouth, England pointed to the genitals of one detainee and posed for another of the disturbing photos that were first made public on "60 Minutes II" last month.

Graner and Frederick made the detainees masturbate in front of the soldiers, Sivits said. By that point, Sivits had seen enough and started to leave the room. He said Frederick left him with a thinly veiled warning: "You didn't see shit."

"Did you try to stop it?" the judge asked Sivits.

"No, your honor," Sivits replied.

"You knew you should have, but you didn't?" the judge continued.

"No, your honor."

Sivits is the first American soldier convicted in the prisoner abuse scandal. In the sentencing phase of the court-martial, four witnesses testified that abusing prisoners was out of character for Sivits, who was described as a good soldier and a go-to guy who would "break his back to help you." However, none of the soldiers called as witnesses excused Sivits' behavior. They said the abuse, which had become an open secret at the prison once an investigation began in January, damaged the morale and reputation of the 372nd Military Police unit.

"We were getting looked down upon as undisciplined, worthless soldiers," Spc. Matthew Wisdom, a military policeman, told the judge. "It made it hard on us, sir."

Prosecutors asked the judge to give Sivits the maximum penalty for incidents he called "horrendous, appalling and simply wrong." Sivits had struck a pretrial deal with prosecutors in which he was allowed a special court-martial, which comes with a capped sentence. At least three other defendants will face general courts-martial, which can bring more severe punishment.

"We must send a message to other soldiers, to our nation and to the Iraqi people that the American military does not tolerate such behavior in our soldiers," said Capt. John McCabe, the lead prosecutor.

Sivits' attorney, 1st Lt. Stanley L. Martin, lobbied the judge for leniency. In closing arguments, Martin painted Sivits as a serious young man from the tiny south-central Pennsylvania town of Hyndman who was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He'd volunteered for a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in 2001, Martin said, and is far from the "sadistic monster" he's been labeled as in the media.

The root cause of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the attorney continued, was a "complete breakdown in leadership."

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told a Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that he put military intelligence in charge of Abu Ghraib for protection, not interrogations. The role of intelligence officers at the prison is a key issue in the abuse investigation.

Sivits stared straight ahead, expressionless, as the judge handed down the maximum sentence—a year in prison, a demotion in rank to private and a bad conduct discharge from the Army. Sivits has the right to appeal the ruling before an Army court in Washington.

Just before the sentencing, Sivits had implored the judge to let him remain in uniform. Some servicemen and women in the courtroom had tears in their eyes as they listened to Sivits' final minutes of testimony.

"I love the Army. I love that flag," Sivits said. "All I ever wanted to be was an American soldier."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

Iraq

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