SAN DIEGO — One member of an elite Navy SEAL team was found not guilty this week of abusing Iraqi prisoners, and the case against two others was set to go to the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing today.
The SEALs were part of a team working with the CIA to capture "high-value" Iraqis suspected of being terrorists and bring them to Abu Ghraib prison for interrogation.
After an informal hearing for one SEAL, the Navy captain who commands all West Coast SEALs ruled Tuesday that there was insufficient evidence to punish him.
"My client is a true war hero, like all of these SEALs," defense attorney Jeremiah J. Sullivan III said. "These guys should have been awarded medals rather than given [criminal] charge sheets when they returned."
Seven members of the Coronado-based SEAL Team 7 initially were accused of kicking and punching prisoners, twisting their testicles, breaking their fingers and photographing them in humiliating poses.
One of the alleged victims was identified in court papers as Manadel Jamadi, who died in U.S. custody. Pictures of his body, packed in ice, have been published in numerous media outlets. In some pictures, Army personnel are leaning toward the body and smiling.
None of the SEALs' names has been released.
Trained as commandos, the SEALs are one of the most lethal and secretive units in the U.S. military. Although SEALs routinely deploy with Marine and Army units, embedded reporters in Afghanistan and Iraq are instructed by the military not to mention the presence of the SEALs.
Defense attorney Milton Silverman said the case began with false allegations by a sailor nicknamed "Klepto," who was kicked out of the SEALs for having stolen body armor from another SEAL. Silverman represents one of the defendants for whom a hearing has not been set.
"I can understand in this climate, with Abu Ghraib on everybody's mind, that the military is understandably sensitive," he said. "But the pendulum has swung too far to the other side."
So far, the Navy has only released information about the two SEALs set to have evidence presented at an Article 32 hearing, roughly equivalent to a grand jury. In each case, Jamadi is mentioned as a victim, but neither SEAL is accused in his death.
A Navy medical corpsman is accused of dereliction of duty and assault, including pointing a loaded firearm at Jamadi. A boatswain's mate is accused of kicking and punching Jamadi, as well as twisting the testicles of other prisoners and "verbally harassing and taunting them."
The Navy has said that some of the four remaining SEAL team members may face charges of aggravated assault with intent to cause death.
Under military law, a hearing officer will recommend to the commanding officer whether each case should be taken to a court-martial.