Tuesday, March 21, 2006

FORT MEADE, Md. — An Army dog handler at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was convicted yesterday of tormenting prisoners with his snarling animal and competing with a comrade to make the inmates soil themselves.

Sgt. Michael J. Smith, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was found guilty at a court-martial of six of 13 counts. The judge later dismissed one of those six counts, saying it duplicated another.

The five charges carry penalties totaling up to 8 years behind bars.

Smith was unrepentant about the abuse convictions during a sentencing hearing that began yesterday afternoon and will conclude today. He told the jury that he wished he had learned how to “CYA,” a euphemism for “cover your backside.” Soldiers who don’t “end up in a heap of trouble,” he said.

Prosecutors said Smith let his unmuzzled black Belgian shepherd Marco bark and lunge at several prisoners for his own amusement. One of the photographs that led to the exposure of the scandal at the Iraqi prison shows his dog straining on its leash, just inches from the face of a cowering prisoner.

Before the trial began March 13, Smith had faced the stiffest potential sentence of any soldier charged so far in the Abu Ghraib scandal — 24 years in prison.

The defense maintained that Smith was a good soldier who thought he was doing what the government wanted canine handlers to do at Abu Ghraib — provide security and frighten interrogation subjects. Also, defense attorney Capt. Mary G. McCarthy said all that Smith’s dog did to prisoners was bark at them.

Master Sgt. Shannon Wilson, who directly supervised Smith at the kennels in Fort Riley, Kan., where Smith’s unit is based, testified for the defense at the sentencing hearing that Smith was an exceptional soldier whose infractions didn’t amount to abuse.

“Anything short of being bit is a psychological deterrent,” Sgt. Wilson said.

The defense further argued that Abu Ghraib was a dangerous, chaotic place where policies were so murky that even the colonel who supervised interrogations testified that he was confused.

The jury deliberated for about 18 hours over three days. The soldier, wearing his green dress uniform, stood at attention, staring straight ahead, as the verdicts were read.

Smith was found guilty of maltreatment involving three prisoners, conspiring with another dog handler in a contest to make detainees soil themselves, dereliction of duty, assault and an indecent act. The assault charge was dismissed.

The indecency conviction was for Smith directing his dog to lick peanut butter off the genitals of a male soldier and the breasts of a female soldier. Smith expressed remorse for that action.

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

The other dog handler, Sgt. Santos A. Cardona, 31, of Fullerton, Calif., is set for trial May 22.

Nine other soldiers have been convicted of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, in many cases by forcing them to assume painful positions and humiliate themselves sexually while being photographed.

Former Cpl. Charles Graner Jr. received the longest sentence — 10 years in prison. Lynndie England, a 23-year-old reservist photographed giving a thumbs-up in front of naked prisoners, is serving three years behind bars.

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