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Army Dog Handler Guilty of Prisoner Abuse in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

An Army dog handler was found guilty Tuesday of using his military dog to terrorize and humiliate detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison at the height of a wave of prisoner abuse.

A military jury at Ft. Meade, Md., found Sgt. Michael J. Smith guilty on six of 13 charges that he had used his unmuzzled dog to harass and threaten inmates at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and early 2004.

Smith faces up to 8 1/2 years in prison, the loss of all pay and a dishonorable discharge. A decision on sentencing is expected as early as today in the court-martial proceeding. If convicted of all 13 charges, Smith would have faced 24 1/2 years in prison, the harshest potential sentence of any soldier charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Smith becomes the 10th low-ranking soldier to be convicted or plead guilty in the scandal, which infuriated Iraqis and Muslims around the world and put the Bush administration on the defensive at a critical point in its effort to stabilize the country after the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

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Abu Ghraib became a notorious symbol of U.S. detention practices, along with the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other facilities that have been denounced by human rights groups and, increasingly, other governments.

A Pentagon spokesman said the verdict showed that the military held its soldiers accountable.

“What you’re seeing is what the department has committed itself to -- a very broad and a very deep review of its detention operations across the board,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

But Avidan Cover, an attorney for New York-based Human Rights First who observed the trial, argued that responsibility for the unconventional interrogation techniques went “all the way to the Pentagon and even the secretary of Defense.”

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The defense argued that Smith believed he had authority from Col. Thomas M. Pappas, who oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib. Pappas, who testified last week under a grant of immunity, said he had incorrectly approved the use of a military dog in a prison interrogation because he misunderstood guidelines put in place by his commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. Pappas was fined $8,000 and relieved of his command.

Smith, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was the first of two Abu Ghraib dog handlers to face court-martial.

A second, Sgt. Santos A. Cardona, 31, of Fullerton, goes on trial in May.

In closing statements, military prosecutors argued last week that Smith should have acted on his own to remove himself from chaotic situations and that he used his black Belgian shepherd as a toy, frightening prisoners for his own amusement.

The defense portrayed the prison as a dangerous environment with hazy guidance from superiors.

The seven-member jury reached its verdict after 18 hours of deliberation over three days.

The guilty verdict includes two counts of maltreatment of an adult and two juveniles, one count of dereliction of duty, one count of assault and one count of conspiracy to make detainees urinate and defecate on themselves.

Smith also was found guilty of an indecent act for using his dog to lick peanut butter off a male soldier’s genitals and a female soldier’s breasts while another soldier videotaped the act.

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The jury returned not guilty verdicts for three other maltreatment charges, one conspiracy charge and three charges of aggravated assault.

The defense called Smith’s colleagues and family members Monday as character witnesses for the sentencing portion of the trial, and Smith gave an unsworn statement, an Army spokeswoman said.

“It was foolish, stupid and juvenile,” Smith said, according to the Associated Press. “There is nothing I could do to take it back. If I could, I would.”


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