A U.S. military court has convicted a soldier of abusing prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004 by using a dog to intimidate them.
The military court in Maryland convicted Sergeant Michael Smith of using a guard dog to harass and threaten three detainees, two of them under 18 years old. The prosecution said the detainees sometimes became so scared that they urinated and defecated on themselves.
Smith's lawyer said he was doing what he was ordered to do, and that other soldiers had allowed their dogs to go even farther in threatening detainees, including allowing some dogs to actually bite detainees. Testimony at the trial indicated the dogs were intended to be used to upset detainees before or during interrogations, but Sergeant Smith was accused of using his dog to intimidate the detainees in other settings for his own amusement. Photos of dogs straining at their leashes and baring their teeth just inches from detainees were published in 2004, along with pictures of other forms of abuse at Abu Ghraib, and some were used as evidence in this trial.
The conviction of Sergeant Smith, who is now 24 years old, follows the convictions of nine other relatively low-ranking soldiers for various forms of abuse at the prison near Baghdad. Another dog handler is awaiting trial.
Human rights advocates like Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch say the military is protecting senior officers and civilian officials who approved some of the abusive techniques, including the use of dogs.
"The larger issue that remains unaddressed is the responsibility of much more senior officers and leaders in the Pentagon," he said. "And this is a very telling case. These dog handlers were employing a technique that was approved by senior commanders in Iraq and by the Pentagon. I think the case shows that the military is protecting senior officers and forcing young soldiers to take responsibility for decisions made much higher up."
Some senior officers have received administrative punishments, such as reprimands and reductions in rank, essentially destroying their career potential in the military. They have been cited for allowing abuse to happen under their commands, but none have faced criminal charges.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved some aggressive interrogation tactics during a brief period in late 2002 and early 2003. The secretary says the approval was rescinded after Pentagon lawyers expressed concerns. But human rights advocates say the original ruling left a widespread impression among military prison guards and interrogators that aggressive techniques would be tolerated. At Sergeant Smith's trial, a general in charge of supervising interrogations at Abu Ghraib during that period said he felt confused about exactly what the rules were.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman says it is necessary to look at exactly what was approved, in what locations and cases, and with what safeguards in place, before judging whether soldiers were acting under the approval of higher-ranking officers and civilian officials. He says the military is doing what it promised to do in handling the abuse allegations.
"What this case demonstrates is what the military has said it would do all along, and that is to hold those accountable who violated policy, procedures, uniform code of military justice, and did things that were inappropriate and wrong," Whitman said.
Whitman also says that in any judicial process some people will see it as too lenient, while others may think it is too harsh.
Tom Malinowski at Human Rights Watch says it appears that the more brutal techniques he says were used at Abu Ghraib two or three years ago are not routinely used today, and are not approved by senior officials. He also notes that in December, the U.S. Congress passed a law prohibiting "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" of military detainees worldwide. But he says it is impossible to know for sure what is going on at detention centers like Abu Ghraib because the security situation in Iraq makes it difficult for organizations like his to make independent assessments.