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BAGHDAD — The first of seven soldiers to be court-martialed for abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison pleaded guilty Wednesday and received the maximum sentence.

Spc. Jeremy Sivits, 24, was sentenced to a year in jail, a bad conduct discharge and reduction in rank to private.

Sivits, a mechanic for the 372nd Military Police Company, 800th Military Police Brigade, had been charged with conspiracy to maltreat subordinates, two counts of maltreating subordinates and dereliction of duty, all in connection with prisoner abuse on Nov. 8, 2003.

His specific crimes were to push a naked prisoner to a pile of six others, after which other soldiers crushed the prisoners’ hands and feet beneath their boots; and to take a photograph of Cpl. Charles Graner posing as if he were going to punch a prisoner in the face.

“I’ve let everybody down,” Sivits told the court, filled with news reporters, military personnel and Iraqi Governing Council members. “I should have protected the detainees.”

Sivits apologized to all Iraqis and the prisoners, the Army and his family, and pleaded that he not be discharged.

“I love the Army. I love that flag,” Sivits said, his voice cracking. “That’s all I ever wanted, to be an American soldier.”

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal has caused worldwide condemnation since the abuse was disclosed on American television April 28, and seriously damaged the credibility of the U.S. military. Numerous investigations into the matter, and of military prison operations throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, are under way, and some of the most coercive interrogation techniques have been banned as the U.S. military tries to recover from the taint.

Sivits’ court-martial was part of that effort as well, with the Army arranging for media coverage and releasing charging papers.

Bakhtiar Amin, the Iraqi human rights minister, said the court-martial — the first he’d ever seen — was a good step.

“It’s a lesson in democracy,” he said.

Terrible things had gone on before at Abu Ghraib, Amin said, including testing toxic gas on 2,000 prisoners in 1984 — and no one had ever gone to trial or apologized for it.

“We haven’t seen an open trial in this country since 1959,” Amin said. “There are seeds of good in bad things. I hope this leads to more transparency in this part of the world.”

According to Sivits’ testimony, he was in the prison building that night almost by accident. He’d finished fueling generators for the evening and was in the command center at about 8 p.m. when Staff Sgt. Ivan Frederick came in to use the copier. Frederick asked him if he wanted to go to the “hard site,” the prison building where prisoners deemed dangerous were held in single cells. Sivits agreed.

Frederick told him that they were dealing with seven inmates involved in a riot at another site at the prison, and asked him to “escort” one of the prisoners, Sivits said. He complied, taking one prisoner by the arm.

“I turned the corner, that’s when I saw the detainees lying on the floor,” Sivits said.

Sivits said he was in the prison building for about 30 minutes, and while he was there, saw prisoners abused repeatedly. All wearing sandbags over their heads and handcuffs, he said they were stripped naked and assaulted. Graner punched a prisoner so hard in the temple that he passed out, Sivits said, and Frederick punched a prisoner so hard in the chest that a medic was called because the man couldn’t breathe. “I might have put him in cardiac arrest,” Sivits said Frederick remarked.

“Were [the prisoners] a threat to anyone?” military judge Col. James Pohl asked Sivits.

“No, your honor,” Sivits said.

Sivits said he took the photograph with a camera Graner pulled from his pocket because he was asked to, and watched as the seven prisoners were piled into a pyramid and when they were posed to make it appear they were engaging in oral sex. Then Frederick ordered the prisoners to masturbate.

“When that started, honestly, I’d had enough and I left,” Sivits said.

As he turned to go, Sivits said, Frederick told him, “You didn’t see [expletive].”

Sivits had made a plea arrangement with III Corps, the convening authority in the case. In exchange for going to a special court-martial, which limited his possible punishment, he agreed to testify against other soldiers in his company, some of whom are also charged with aggravated assault and face far stiffer sentences if found guilty at a general court-martial.

Frederick, Graner and Sgt. Javal Davis were arraigned Wednesday before Pohl in three brief hearings before the start of Sivits’ trial. None entered a plea and all have retained private lawyers in addition to those assigned by the military. Their next hearings were scheduled for June 21.

Sivits, from a Pennsylvania hollow of 45 people — the first in his family to graduate from high school, and the “go-to guy” in his unit, according to two sergeants who testified in his behalf — said the highest-ranking soldier he saw in the prison that night was a sergeant first class. That sergeant, early in the course of the night’s events, yelled out for the others to stop their abuse, then left. After that, Sivits said, Frederick was in charge.

“You’ve got all these people doing all this stuff. ... Why were they doing this?” Pohl asked.

Sivits replied he’d been told that military intelligence had asked the guards to brutalize prisoners “... because it was working, they were talking.”

An Army report concluded that military intelligence and civilian interrogators were either directly or indirectly responsible for the abuse.

The report also concluded that Abu Ghraib suffered from a lack of leadership, no supervision, mortar attacks and otherwise terrible conditions.

“It was hell — honestly it was,” Sivits told the judge. “It was like out of a horror movie, sir.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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