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Soldier 'Bewildered' Over Abuse

Sgt. Joseph Darby testifies that he was shocked when he viewed the Abu Ghraib photos that he eventually slipped to investigators.

August 07, 2004|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

FT. BRAGG, N.C. — The soldier who unmasked the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal in Iraq described Friday how his decision to go public came after a month of soul-searching over whether to violate the Army's taboo against breaking ranks.

"These people were my friends," Sgt. Joseph Darby said of seven former comrades in the 327th Military Police Brigade Company from rural Maryland who were charged with criminal behavior in the prison abuse case. "These were people I had been through experiences with in the past. It's a hard decision to do something that puts your friends in prison."

It was Darby who, near midnight on Jan. 14, slipped an anonymous note and a computer disc containing digital photographs under the door of the Army criminal investigative office at the prison near Baghdad. The photographs depicted military police officers cheerfully abusing and sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners.

The Army launched an investigation, and in April the photos were leaked to news outlets, triggering an international uproar and setting back the U.S. cause in Iraq.

Darby has since been promoted and assigned to an undisclosed location.

Darby testified Friday in the fourth day of a preliminary hearing for Pfc. Lynndie England. She is one of six military police officers who face possible court-martial in the case. A seventh has pleaded guilty. A military judge will recommend whether England, 21, who is seven months pregnant, should face court-martial.

Darby said he knew England before "she even went to basic training." Speaking of Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., England's boyfriend and the man who has emerged as the alleged ringleader of the abuse on Abu Ghraib's Tier 1A, Darby told how they had served in other missions abroad before the war sent them to Iraq.

But, he said, his voice firm and confident, what he accused them of doing "violates everything I believe in, and it violates the very rules of war."

Darby -- an Army specialist at the time -- recalled that he had intended to remain anonymous but admitted to investigators he was the one who had turned over the photos and said that they had made him sick. "I was kind of shocked," he said of his own first reactions to the photos in December. "And kind of bewildered."

Photography, he said, was one of his passions. He took his 35mm camera to Iraq, he said, but it had been ruined in the sand. Still trying to build his own photo book, he relied on his friends for copies of their souvenir photos taken at palaces that once belonged to Saddam Hussein, at the site where, in biblical accounts, Daniel was said to have been thrown into the lions' den, and along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

He said that made the photos that Graner loaned him so jarring. They were nothing like the photos "I had been collecting to send home to show my family," he said.

England faces a maximum of 38 years in prison for her role in the abuse scandal. She is shown in numerous photos posing with nude prisoners, one of them at the end of a leash. Graner, 35, also is charged and remains in Iraq, along with four other prison guards, awaiting court-martial. Spc. Jeremy A. Sivits, who pleaded guilty to mistreating prisoners, is serving a year in military prison. Others, including the military police unit's company commander and the general overseeing prison operations in Iraq, have received letters of reprimand.

Darby testified by telephone, his location and assignment kept secret because authorities are concerned about potential repercussions from soldiers who might view him as a snitch.

Indeed, Special Agent Tyler Pieron, the Army criminal investigator who received the photos from Darby, and other agents testified that those fears were not to be dismissed. They said Graner, a prison guard in civilian life, is a large man with a "volatile temper."

Darby, who worked as a shift coordinator at Abu Ghraib, was away most of November. When he returned on Thanksgiving, he said, he was regaled with stories about a prison shootout in which an inmate, armed with a smuggled 9mm pistol and two bayonet knives, wounded an Army prison guard.

"I heard there were bullet holes in the walls and blood stains on the floor and that there were pictures of that," Darby said. "I wanted to see them."

He said he knew Graner was a fellow camera buff, so he asked him for photos from the shooting. "Cpl. Graner was always taking pictures," Darby said. "I knew he'd have them."

Sure enough, he said, Graner loaned him two computer discs.

Over the next several days, Darby said, he downloaded the discs onto his computer and flashed the images up on his screen. First he viewed travelogue photos of different scenes from Kuwait and Iraq.

Then he clicked on several other folders and came across images of detainees -- beaten and humiliated, stacked naked into a pyramid. Graner and England were in the photos too, grinning and giving the thumbs-up.

Darby said he was disgusted but reluctant to act.

In late December, Graner had been transferred out of Abu Ghraib and was working on a convoy team, Darby said. But Darby learned in mid-January that Graner was about to be reassigned to the prison.

"I knew I had to turn them in now and not wait," Darby said. "Because I was concerned it was going to start again."

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