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Officer's Trial in Abuse of Iraqi Inmate Is Delayed

Court-martial judge orders prosecutors to search for evidence from autopsy of the prisoner who died in custody.

September 17, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The court-martial of a Marine officer accused of failing to stop enlisted personnel from beating Iraqi prisoners has been delayed so that prosecutors can hunt for missing evidence.

The court-martial of Maj. Clarke Paulus at Camp Pendleton had been set to begin next week but was delayed until at least October, officials said Thursday.

The delay is another indication of the difficulty authorities have had in piecing together what happened at a makeshift facility in the chaotic weeks after coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein's regime and Marines unexpectedly became jailers.

Paulus, 35, is accused of being derelict in his duties as officer in charge of a detention facility outside the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in late May and early June 2003. He is the highest-ranking Marine accused of mistreating prisoners; half a dozen enlisted Marines have been convicted in other cases.

A Marine sergeant was convicted two weeks ago of assault and dereliction of duty for beating prisoners at the facility run by Paulus. Other Marines who were granted immunity testified that Sgt. Gary Pittman beat and kicked prisoners, sometimes out of anger, sometimes to soften them for interrogation. He was sentenced to 60 days' hard labor and a reduction in rank to private.

Paulus had been commanding officer at the Camp Whitehorse detention facility for less than a week when Marines captured Nagem Sadoon Hatab, a 52-year-old Baath Party member and hit man, as a possible suspect in the ambush of an Army convoy in which 11 soldiers were killed and Pfc. Jessica Lynch was taken prisoner.

Hatab's death two days later led the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division to order an investigation. That investigation, by Naval Criminal Investigation Service agents, led to charges against eight Marines.

Most of the charges were later reduced or dismissed. The Marines were part of a reserve battalion whose regimental headquarters is in Worcester, Mass.

Paulus, an active-duty Marine, faces four years in prison if convicted of dereliction, assault and maltreatment of prisoners. He has asked for a trial by a jury of officers.

Prosecutors allege that Hatab suffocated from a broken bone in his neck suffered when a lance corporal dragged him at Paulus' order.

Col. Robert Chester, the court-martial judge, ordered the proceeding delayed so that prosecutors can hunt for the broken neck bone and other body parts from Hatab's autopsy.

Hatab's cause of death was key to the trial of Pittman, who was accused of kicking and beating Hatab. Paulus' civilian attorney, Keith Higgins, has requested that military officials redouble efforts to find the missing evidence so that issues of what caused Hatab's death can be resolved.

Opposing attorneys had been set for a hearing today to present pretrial motions to Chester. Instead, the judge has delayed that hearing until Sept. 30.

After the military's equivalent of a pretrial hearing earlier this year, a hearing officer concluded that no charges should be filed against Paulus because he neither knew nor condoned the maltreatment of prisoners.

But the commanding general decided to overrule that recommendation and refer the case to a court-martial.

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