Abu Ghraib court-martial meets skepticism in Iraq

Spc. Jeremy Sivits was sentenced Wednesday to one year in prison and discharged from the Army.

Despite the maximum sentence doled out in Thursday's court-martial, the first of seven scheduled for American soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners, many Iraqis from all walks of life condemned the proceedings as an American show trial.

From lawyers and government officials to old men sitting in coffee shops, many Iraqis demanded a trial run by international authorities or by Iraqis themselves.

"The court-martial is a first step on the right path," said Ahmed al-Barrak, a lawyer and member of the US-appointed Governing Council. "But there's no role for the Iraqis, because he's an American citizen. We need someone from the Iraqi courts to visit the prisons, and take part in the trials to guarantee this won't happen again."

Inside the heavily guarded Baghdad Convention Center, Spc. Jeremy Sivits was sentenced Wednesday to one year in prison and given a "bad conduct" discharge from the Army. Meanwhile, outside, several hundred Iraqis chanted, "Where are human rights?" and waved banners in protest of a process that most here see as little satisfaction for the humiliation so graphically depicted in pictures taken by American troops.

By giving broad media access to the trial, US authorities had hoped that it would help salvage the image of US troops on the Iraqi street - especially with the presence of reporters from Iraqi newspapers and Arabic-language satellite channels.

But Iraqis were widely skeptical of the trial, held by US military authorities. Even relatively pro-US Iraqis wanted a role in trying the soldiers, whom the US military does not consider subject to Iraqi civil law.

Several days ago, Jawdat al-Obeidi, a former exile who lived in the US, held a conference of Iraqi sheikhs, politicians, and lawyers to discuss how Iraqis should respond to the scandal.

"First, the prosecution should be Iraqi, and Americans should take part in the defense," said Mr. Obeidi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Democratic Congress, an umbrella group of Iraqi political parties.

"And people present also should be Iraqis," he continues. "And it should be live on television, and it should be translated into Arabic. This will make Iraqis feel that the Americans respect the Iraqi citizens, that they respect the law and the people."

Thursday, the court-martial got little play in local newspapers, which were dominated by graphic coverage of the abuses - some accurate, some wildly exaggerated, like the weekly that screamed "Preliminary investigations with Pentagon generals: Admission to raping 4,000 Iraqi women, gouging out eyes, cutting off hands and legs of those refusing to make confessions!" The US-funded Al Sabah offered the most coverage, printing the time and place.

Many people criticized the decision not to let cameras and recording devices into the court, given Iraqi newspapers' longstanding reputation as unreliable sources. But Arabic satellite channels Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, as well as 32 other news organizations, could send reporters into the courtroom. In an overflow room, about 200 reporters from other worldwide media watched on closed-circuit television.

During an emotionally charged three-plus hours, Mr. Sivits described the scene at Abu Ghraib, a sprawling compound outside Baghdad, on the evening of Nov. 8, 2003. He was working outside, he said, when Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick summoned him. Inside, he said he saw seven men, some "with sandbags over their heads." Sivits said he watched soldiers stamp on the prisoners' toes and hands, then force them to strip and form a pyramid.

Sivits, whose lawyer told the judge he had reached a pretrial agreement with the prosecution, is expected to testify against other soldiers in coming courts-martial. Three soldiers - Sgt. Javal Davis, Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick, and Spec. Charles Graner - deferred their pleas in an arraignment just hours before Sivits's court-martial.

The charges against them range from assault with force likely to produce grievous bodily harm to indecency. Graner, who faces a trial with no penalty limit, is also accused of trying to intimidate Sivits.

Sivits's bad-conduct discharge strips him of the pension accorded his rank as specialist and demotes him to private.

Many Iraqis said they thought the soldiers were scapegoats for American politicians, echoing charges made by some of the defense lawyers. "If they were just crazy and did this, well, even if they execute them, this would not be enough," said Rabha Nida, a retired government employee. "But if the soldiers have instructions from higher authorities, then they should [only] be put in prison for life."

"I don't think anything is going to happen to them," added her daughter. "They were just carrying out orders."

Before the trial began, demonstrators marched from Liberation Square, across the Jumhuriya Bridge, and up to the gate of the US compound where the court- martial was being held. They waved placards and marched to a small band.

"We can't let them in," said Staff Sgt. Shannon Feist, nodding in the direction of the Iraqis gathered outside. "If we did, we'd have a demonstration in here. If it got violent, there's be no way for us to keep people safe. Or to keep ourselves safe."

In the baking street outside the center, Saddam Salah al-Rawi stood with a black plastic bag over his head. With holes cut out for his eyes, it was a more humane version of the eyeless hoods US troops often put on Iraqis after arresting them.

He held a sign that said "Where is the Freedum?" - a phrase that has become something of a slogan in Iraq recently. "I was Presiner," said Mr. Salah's sign in both English and Arabic. "I want to let me into the court please."

"I want to see if there is any justice or not," said Salah, a young truck driver, shaking as he held up his sign. "I think this is a kind of "Cinema Bush." Bremer is the director, and the actors are from the American Army. If I see that there is no justice inside, I will seek justice in other ways: I will ask for international courts, and I will seek out courts in other jurisdictions. I need my dignity back."

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