A civilian working for the U.S. military in Iraq was charged with aggravated assault under military law, the first such prosecution since the Vietnam War, the U.S. command said Saturday.
In a case first reported by The New York Times on Friday, a translator who served in Hit, in western Iraq, is charged with stabbing another contractor during a dispute. It is the first time since 1968 that a contractor has been charged under military law and is the first case since Congress gave the military authority over contractors in 2006 in the wake of scandals like the Blackwater shooting incident.
The man charged in the case, identified by the military as Alaa Mohammad Ali, allegedly stabbed the other contractor in the chest on Feb. 23. He was arrested by the military later that month and will face an Article 32 hearing — similar to a civilian grand jury — on Thursday in Iraq. Ali has Canadian and Iraqi citizenship, the Times reported. Col. Bill Buckner, a military spokesman, told The Associated Press that it is the first time since 1968 that a civilian working for the military has been charged under military law.
The prosecution is going forward under a March memo released by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates outlining how to proceed with cases involving contractors, the Times reported.
The memo directs the military to first give the Justice Department the opportunity to transfer the case to the United States for trial; if the case is not taken by Justice, “commanders should be prepared to act,” the memo states.
Ali has a military lawyer, the Times reported. The case first came to light when a former Navy Judge Advocate General posted the details on a blog for military law experts, who view the case as an important test of the new guidelines.
The convening authority, Multi-National Corps–Iraq commander Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, will decide whether or not the case would move to a court martial.
Lt. Col. Matt Ramsey, the MNCI deputy staff judge advocate, was quoted in the Times as saying the expanded authority to prosecute contractors was an important tool.
“Contractors have assumed an essential role supporting combat forces in Iraq,” Ramsey was quoted as saying. “Congress extended U.C.M.J. jurisdiction over civilians who accompany our armed forces during contingency operations, and this change provides commanders with another important and necessary means of establishing good order and discipline across the force.” But, military law experts say that authority could be challenged in civilian courts if a military trial goes forward in this case.
There are more than 160,000 contractors working in Iraq and some 36,000 in Afghanistan — about the same number of troops in those regions. They are responsible for a slew of duties, including supplying food and water, building barracks, providing armed security and gathering intelligence, according to the AP.