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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Military Intelligence Soldier Sentenced in Abu Ghraib Case

The defendant pleads guilty to two counts related to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

September 12, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A U.S. military intelligence soldier who blamed wartime stress for his abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison was sentenced Saturday to eight months in prison, a reduction in rank and a bad-conduct discharge.

Spc. Armin J. Cruz, 24, was the first military intelligence soldier to be convicted in the scandal that shocked the world when photographs of Iraqi detainees suffering physical and sexual abuse were made public. A military policeman also has been convicted.

Cruz faced a maximum of a one-year sentence for conspiracy and maltreatment of prisoners. He pleaded guilty to both counts. He has agreed to testify against others charged in more serious cases of mistreatment at the U.S.-run prison west of Baghdad.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday that 45 people had been referred for court-martial in the Abu Ghraib case and that 12 letters of reprimand had been issued to officers.

A contrite Cruz took the witness stand during his court-martial here and confessed to participating in an Oct. 25 incident in which three detainees were forced to undress, were handcuffed and ordered to crawl so their genitals dragged on the concrete. He was also accused of using his leg to force at least one inmate to the floor and tossing a foam football at the three naked prisoners.

The October incident occurred several weeks before the most serious abuses took place at Abu Ghraib, including the stacking of nude prisoners in pyramids and alleged episodes of forced masturbation.

Cruz, an Army reservist and martial arts black belt from Texas, broke into tears as he told the judge that the incident occurred a month after a mortar attack at Abu Ghraib killed his sergeant and another soldier. The incident had "haunted" him, Cruz testified in a courtroom at the convention center inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

"That night I did not see three detainees," testified Cruz, who was injured in the mortar strike and received a Purple Heart. "I saw three people who tried to kill me, and killed my section leader and my friend." He also said he reported the abuse incident to his superiors the next day but no action was taken.

"I apologize to the victims," said Cruz, who was repeatedly called a "war hero" by his civilian attorney, Stephen Karns.

But the Army prosecutor, Maj. Michael R. Holley, said Cruz took part in the abuse voluntarily -- a fact that Cruz acknowledged, explaining that a fellow soldier had roused him from his cot and suggested they both go see what the MPs were up to. "The accused did not have to participate, but he did," said Holley, who added that Cruz sought to "degrade them like they were animals."

The three prisoners had no intelligence value, the prosecutor said, and Cruz had no reason to be present other than to take part in the action.

The inmates' lack of intelligence value tends to undermine the argument by military police charged in the scandal that they were following orders from military intelligence officials to "soften up" detainees before interrogation.

Cruz was an analyst attached to the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion in Iraq. He has remained in Baghdad on administrative assignments pending his court-martial.

A number of character witnesses testified on Cruz's behalf, including his father, Armin Jose Cruz, a Cuban immigrant who graduated from West Point in 1977. The father appeared in a video shown to the court along with Spc. Cruz's mother and sister.

Cruz volunteered for service in Iraq and cut short his studies at the University of Texas in Dallas in order to serve in the war effort, he testified.

Staff Sgt. Frederick J. Krapf, who served with Cruz at Abu Ghraib, described him as an eager and exemplary soldier. In a letter submitted to the court, Krapf wrote of the bleak living conditions at Abu Ghraib, long a notorious prison facility under Saddam Hussein.

At the end of each day, Krapf wrote, he and Cruz would commiserate: "Another day behind us in this hellhole, another day closer to going home."

The military judge, Col. James Pohl, reduced Cruz's rank to private and issued him a bad-conduct discharge, along with the eight-month prison term. Cruz plans to appeal, his lawyer said.

In May, Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits pleaded guilty to four counts of abuse at his court-martial and was sentenced to a year in prison, reduction in rank and a bad-conduct discharge. Like Cruz, Sivits is expected to testify against some of the alleged ringleaders of the abuse.

Six other soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company also face courts-martial.

An investigation by Army Maj. Gen. George R. Fay found evidence of widespread abuse by military intelligence officials at Abu Ghraib.

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