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The Conflict in Iraq

Judge Gives Prosecutors a Deadline in Abuse Case

Former commanders at Abu Ghraib may be granted immunity and forced to testify if charges aren't filed against them by Sept. 17.

August 25, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

MANNHEIM, Germany — A U.S. military judge warned prosecutors Tuesday that they had until Sept. 17 to file charges against former commanders at Abu Ghraib prison or he might grant the officers immunity and force them to testify at the trials of soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi detainees.

Offering immunity to the officers -- who have refused to cooperate with investigators on the grounds that they might incriminate themselves -- could shed light on whether commanders condoned an atmosphere that led to the ridicule and beatings of Iraqi prisoners.

The warning by the judge, Col. James L. Pohl, came after a lawyer representing one of the accused soldiers argued that the Defense Department was attempting to cover up a policy that sanctioned harsh interrogation tactics. Pohl said the commanding officers "would have a perspective on what was authorized and what was not."

Two of the officers who may be compelled to testify are Col. Thomas M. Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, and Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, who was in charge of an interrogation unit at the prison.

Both men have been the focus of several government investigations, and a report Tuesday by a panel headed by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger accused Pappas of "weak and ineffectual leadership [that] allowed the abuses at Abu Ghraib." A report by Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay, due today, is expected to recommend disciplinary action against Pappas.

Pohl told prosecutors that Pappas' testimony "would appear to be critical to the defendants ... that this was condoned by higher-ups. You know where this is going. It's either pay me now or pay me later."

Prosecutor Maj. Michael R. Holly told the judge that granting commanders immunity could jeopardize possible disciplinary or criminal charges against Pappas and Jordan.

Although Pohl indicated that he might force some officers to testify, he denied a motion by Paul Bergrin, the lawyer for Sgt. Javal S. Davis, to question Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Undersecretary of Defense Stephen A. Cambone.

Bergrin had argued in court that Rumsfeld "approved of aggressive" interrogation techniques, and that his support filtered through the chain of command and motivated officers and civilian contractors to set abusive conditions.

"It's impossible to believe" that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was limited to the seven military police soldiers now charged, said Bergrin, who used a flip-chart in court to try to trace how Washington policies trickled down to the prison in Iraq.

Pohl replied: "I'm not saying there's not a link. I'm saying at this point you haven't shown me specific evidence."

The judge's comments came during a second day of preliminary hearings for four soldiers charged in the scandal. The soldiers claim that there was a systematic culture aimed at breaking down Iraqi detainees to gather intelligence on a widening insurgency against American forces.

The Bush administration says the abuse was limited to a small group of rogue soldiers who violated military policy.

Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II -- charged with conspiracy, cruelty and indecent acts -- indicated that he would formally plead guilty to some charges against him when the hearings resumed in Baghdad in October.

After Tuesday's session, Frederick's attorney, Gary Myers, told reporters that his client "is taking responsibility for certain actions. He could not in good conscience continue with a plea of not guilty."

Myers said there was a "complete breakdown in authority" at Abu Ghraib that violated Geneva Convention rules on how prisoners should be treated. Frederick, he added, "has, unlike many, accepted the responsibility of corrupt behavior generated by circumstances at Abu Ghraib. He's a good person. A good father and a good man."

At a news conference after the hearing, Bergrin said his client, Davis, did "embarrass and humiliate" Iraqi prisoners because he believed it was authorized by superiors to save American lives.

"The MPs received orders" for using dogs, nudity, isolation and other methods for interrogation that had been used on suspected Al Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Bergrin added.

Davis, who is charged with assault and dereliction of duty, is accused of jumping on naked Iraqi prisoners who had been forced by soldiers to form a human pyramid.

Pohl denied a motion by Bergrin to suppress statements Davis gave to an investigator in January. Davis signed a four-page sworn statement on Jan. 14 saying that he had witnessed abuse and humiliations of prisoners but had not taken part. A day later, the New Jersey native changed the statement to suggest he was involved in harassment.

Davis said he lied at first because he was exhausted after a 14-hour shift that included a night in a prison guard tower.

"So it takes very little to get you to lie?" Holly asked during cross-examination.

"I was dishonest about things I was accused of," Davis responded, adding that he went back and amended the original statement because "I wanted to maintain my integrity."

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