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Judge Demands Results in Prison Probe

He says he might drop charges against a soldier accused in the Abu Ghraib scandal if evidence isn't brought forward soon.

August 24, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

MANNHEIM, Germany — A military judge here Monday criticized the pace of U.S. investigations into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, saying if prosecutors did not move quickly to divulge evidence, he might dismiss charges against a soldier accused of humiliating and assaulting Iraqi detainees.

The judge, Col. James L. Pohl, said four incomplete U.S. investigations were hindering progress in the case involving Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., a military police officer who appears in many abuse-related photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. The judge grew irritated when informed that in one probe, a single investigator was assigned to search hundreds of thousands of pages stored in a secret computer server.

"The government has to figure out what they want to do with the prosecution of this case," Pohl said. He added that if the investigations, including one by the Pentagon, were not accelerated by next month, he would "seriously revisit" a motion by Graner's lawyers to dismiss the case at a hearing in Baghdad on Oct. 21. New charges, he said, could be refiled when the reports were completed.

The judge's remarks came on the first of two days of preliminary hearings at the U.S. military base here for four soldiers charged with conspiracy, cruelty, maltreatment and other offenses. The soldiers are Spc. Megan Ambuhl, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II, Sgt. Javal S. Davis and Graner, who is often described by investigators as the ringleader of the alleged criminal actions. They each face possible court-martial.

Frederick issued a statement Monday saying he would plead guilty to "certain charges" in connection with the scandal. He is charged with maltreatment of detainees, conspiracy to maltreat detainees, dereliction of duty and wrongfully committing an indecent act. The statement did not detail which charges Frederick would accept guilt for.

"I have concluded that what I did was a violation of the law," the statement read. "I am hopeful that all those within the Army who contributed to or participated in the chaos that was Abu Ghraib will also come forward and accept responsibility."

Frederick's preliminary hearing is scheduled for today in Mannheim.

Most of Monday's proceedings dealt with Graner's case. The judge denied a motion by the defendant's lawyers to exclude from the case photos and other evidence seized from Graner's computer this year. Dozens of photos show Graner and his girlfriend, Pfc. Lynndie England, with naked, half-dressed or hooded detainees. The photos have led to wider investigations into alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The court also rejected a defense motion for a change of venue. Graner's legal team wants to move a possible court-martial away from Baghdad. His military lawyer, Capt. Jay Heath, told the court that Graner could not receive a fair trial in Iraq because publicity had "tainted" the case and many soldiers believed that the accused had "damaged" the U.S. mission in the Middle East.

Pohl said there was no place where the trial could take place to escape the notoriety surrounding the scandal.

During the proceedings Monday, Graner, a 35-year-old Army reservist and civilian prison guard from Pennsylvania, sat at a table next to his lawyers. He intermittently moved about in his chair, crossing his legs and shifting from elbow to elbow. He testified that investigators had coerced him into handing over his computer. When he was first questioned, on Jan. 14, he said, he was exhausted and stressed from days of riding in prison convoys that often came under fire.

The judge granted a defense motion to suppress a comment Graner made to a military investigator early on Jan. 14. The investigator testified that Graner had told him, "What you are looking for is on my computer." Graner also said he was being made a "scapegoat," according to testimony. The defense said the comment about the computer was inadmissible because Graner had uttered it after he had asked for a lawyer.

"Charles Graner knew exactly what he was doing," said prosecutor Maj. Michael R. Holly, adding that as a military police officer, the defendant was aware of his rights when he was being questioned.

At a news conference after the hearing, Graner's lawyer, Guy Womack, said government investigators had not disclosed unclassified evidence, including names of military intelligence officials and civilian contractors who worked at Abu Ghraib. Among reports Womack is awaiting is an investigation by Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay into the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, which was responsible for the prison.

Graner and other military police officers at Abu Ghraib were following orders and using approved interrogation techniques, Womack said.

"As the MPs saw it, there was nothing wrong with it," he said. They "were consistently told to follow those orders and that they were lawful."

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