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Trial Starts for US Soldier Accused in Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse

A U.S. Army reservist accused of being one of the key people in the abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad went on trial at an army base in Texas on Friday. Most of the day was used to select a jury, and opening arguments in the case are expected to be made on Monday.

Army specialist Charles Graner appeared in the military courtroom Friday to begin facing charges of physically and sexually abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Specialist Graner has denied all the charges against him, but he appears prominently in some of the photographs of abuse that were widely circulated last year, causing an international outcry.

In one of the pictures, Specialist Graner can be seen standing behind several naked Iraqi detainees, who had apparently been forced to lie on top of each other. He is accused of jumping on detainees, stomping on their hands and feet and punching one of them in the head so hard that he lost consciousness.

While denying the abuse charges, his lawyer said on Thursday that whatever Specialist Graner did at the prison he did under orders. The lawyer, Guy Womack, says the specialist questioned some of the orders, concerned they might be improper, and was told each time by his commanders that the orders were lawful and should be carried out.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita declined to comment on the specifics of the Graner case, but said there is no evidence anyone was ordered to abuse prisoners.

"There was no policy,” he said. “And none of the investigations that have been concluded to date have been able to draw a connection between the activity at Abu Ghraib, in particular the activity that Specialist Graner was alleged to have participated in, and any approved policies of this department."

President Bush's nominee for Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, has faced challenges to his nomination by members of Congress who believe a memo he wrote in his current job as President Bush's counsel, provided legal justification for the torture of prisoners held in the war on terrorism.

On Thursday, the military dropped four of the charges against Specialist Graner, related to assault, obstruction of justice and adultery. A prosecution spokesman would not say why the charges were dropped, but indicated that charges are dropped normally for lack of evidence or as part of a legal strategy to focus on other charges.

The adultery charge apparently stemmed from Specialist Graner's relationship with Private First Class Lynndie England, who is also accused of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and also appeared in some of the pictures. Her trial has not yet begun.

Four other U.S. soldiers have already pleaded guilty to charges of abuse at Abu Ghraib, and three of them have received prison sentences ranging from eight months to eight years. The prosecution says all four will testify in this trial, and it plans to play videotaped testimony from three former Abu Ghraib prisoners. The former guards and prisoners are on a list of 35 witnesses the prosecution plans to call.

If convicted on all remaining charges against him, Specialist Graner, who is 36 years old, could face up to 17-and-a-half years in prison.

The U.S. government says the abuses at Abu Ghraib were an isolated incident, and blames the soldiers involved, and a bad command structure at the prison. But more recently there have been allegations of abuse at other U.S. military detention facilities in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.