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Trial Begins for Marine Accused of Beating Iraqi Prisoners

The prosecution relies mainly on a private who received immunity, then switched his testimony.

August 25, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — The prosecution's case against a Marine sergeant accused of assaulting Iraqi prisoners rests almost entirely on a Marine private who switched his testimony after being granted immunity, the sergeant's defense attorney said Tuesday in his opening statement.

Nine Marine officers -- eight of whom have served in Iraq -- are sitting as jurors in the court-martial of Sgt. Gary Pittman, 40, a reservist from New York.

Pittman is accused of dereliction of duty and assaulting a suspected Baath Party member and other Iraqi prisoners while serving last year as a guard at the detention facility at Camp Whitehorse outside Nasiriyah, Iraq.

Maj. Leon Francis, the lead prosecutor, told jurors that Pittman kneed, kicked and punched Nagem Sadoon Hatab out of unprovoked anger and then boasted that rough treatment of prisoners was routine in the federal prison system where he was assigned as a guard. Hatab was found dead two days after being captured.

Pittman faces a maximum of two years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if convicted. He opted for a jury trial by officers rather than a proceeding in which the verdict would be left to the judge, Col. Robert Chester.

Pittman will testify that he never abused prisoners and that he was sick and off-duty when Hatab was in custody, his Marine attorney, Capt. Andrew Folk, told jurors. Pittman and the prosecution's star witness, Marine Pfc. William Roy, were a two-man team working a four-hour shift at the facility.

"This is a case about Marines doing their best to accomplish a mission that was difficult, dangerous and that they were never specifically trained to do," Folk said.

Roy has been granted immunity for his testimony. A Marine reservist and correctional guard in upstate New York, Roy will testify that he and Pittman assaulted Hatab and other prisoners, Francis said.

Angered because Hatab seemed uncooperative, Pittman landed a karate kick to Hatab's chest while Hatab was handcuffed and had a bag on his head, the prosecutor said.

"He [Hatab] was completely defenseless," Francis said. "He gets that kick square in the chest, knocking him on his back." Hatab, 52, had been arrested as a possible suspect in the ambush of an Army convoy in which 11 soldiers were killed and Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was taken prisoner. After being arrested, Hatab led Marines to a rifle that had belonged to one of the dead soldiers.

Roy was demoted from lance corporal to private first class after pleading guilty at an administrative hearing to avoid court-martial.

Two Marine majors also face charges in the case. Charges against seven other enlisted Marines were either dismissed or dealt with in administrative hearings.

The Marines are part of a reserve group with its headquarters in Worcester, Mass.

In his opening statement, Folk suggested that Hatab might have died from injuries inflicted by Roy, not Pittman. And he indicated that the defense planned to dispute the findings of an autopsy done by an Army pathologist with testimony from its own expert witness.

The Army pathologist reported that Hatab had six broken ribs, a finding that suggested that a kick from a martial-arts expert such as Pittman was responsible. But Folk said a defense expert would testify that the broken ribs could have occurred long before Hatab was arrested.

The same autopsy found that Hatab had slowly suffocated, possibly due to a broken bone in his neck. He had been dragged by the neck into a holding area while barely conscious.

Francis said Roy will testify that a battered Hatab pleaded with Pittman to stop hitting him and muttered, "Why? Why? No. No." Folk countered that of a dozen or more Marines who saw Hatab during his two days in custody, only Roy heard him speak English.

The defense strategy is to portray Camp Whitehorse as a chaotic place where dozens of prisoners were being brought in -- where some, like Hatab, were resistant, and where Marines had to be on alert for a possible attack by supporters of a sheik who was a prisoner, attorneys said.

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