- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

FORT MEADE, Md. — An Army dog handler was sentenced yesterday to nearly six months in prison for tormenting Abu Ghraib prisoners with his snarling Belgian shepherd.

Sgt. Michael J. Smith, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was ordered to serve 179 days in prison and was reduced to the rank of private. He also will forfeit $750 per month of his pay for three months and receive a bad-conduct discharge after his release from prison.

Under military law, a prison sentence and a bad-conduct discharge requires Smith to forfeit all pay during his time in prison, despite the jury’s sentence, said Lt. Col. Bobbi Davis, a military legal specialist.

Smith had faced up to 8 years in prison after his conviction Tuesday on five of the 13 offenses with which he was charged.

The jury convicted Smith of conspiring with another dog handler to try to frighten detainees into soiling themselves and directing his dog to lick peanut butter off of other soldiers’ bodies.

In closing arguments, prosecutors urged the panel of four officers and three senior noncommissioned officers to send Smith to prison for at least three years, followed by a bad-conduct discharge. Maj. Matthew Miller, a prosecution lawyer, said such a sentence would send a message that such actions will not be tolerated.

“Every soldier must understand that individual acts of misconduct have strategic implications,” Maj. Miller said. “This is a global war on terror. It is a global battle for the hearts and minds of people all over the world.”

But the defense said Smith should serve no jail time and instead be returned to his family and his unit. Capt. Scott Rolle, Smith’s attorney, told the jury that while Smith made mistakes at Abu Ghraib, he also is “a hero,” decorated for saving the lives of other U.S. soldiers during a mortar attack.

Smith appeared unrepentant about the abuse charges when he addressed the jury Tuesday, shortly after he was convicted.

“Soldiers are not supposed to be soft and cuddly,” he said.

He said he wished he had gotten his orders in writing for self-protection because soldiers who do not “end up in a heap of trouble.”

The relatively light sentence surprised Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in the District, who said he thought Smith would get years, not months, of confinement.

“I think people around the world are going to be scratching their heads at that sentence,” he said. “The conduct of which this soldier was convicted is highly offensive, and if this is all one gets, it’s not impunity, but it’s getting real close.”

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, 23, a reservist photographed giving a thumbs-up in front of naked prisoners, is serving three years behind bars.

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