- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 22, 2010

BAGHDAD | An Iraqi prisoner suspected of masterminding an attack that killed four American contractors testified Wednesday he was beaten by U.S. troops while hooded and tied to a chair in the opening day of a court-martial of a Navy SEAL.

The trial stems from an attack on four Blackwater security contractors who were driving through the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad in early 2004. The men were killed, and then a mob dragged two of the burnt bodies through the streets and hung them from a bridge over the Euphrates River — pictures that became iconic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Images of the burnt bodies of Americans hanging from the bridge drove home to many the rising power of the insurgency and helped spark a bloody U.S. invasion of the city to root out the insurgents.

The courts-martial of three Navy SEALS accused in the Iraqi prisoner’s abuse case have outraged many Americans who see it as a sign that their government is going soft on terrorists. Members of Congress have urged the U.S. defense secretary to drop the charges.

Ahmed Hashim Abed, who is being held by Iraqi authorities pending trial, was brought in to the court wearing his yellow prison jumpsuit. He testified he was sitting in a chair with his hands bound behind him — a hood over his head — when he was hit from behind on the shoulder and back and fell to his knees and was then picked back up and struck in the stomach.

Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas, of Blue Island, Ill., is the first of three Navy SEALs to go on trial in connection with the alleged assault.

He is not accused of actually abusing the prisoner but of failing to safeguard him and attempting to influence the testimony of another service member.

The 28-year-old Petty Officer Huertas, wearing his blue Navy uniform, appeared in a military courtroom at Camp Victory on Baghdad’s western outskirts to answer charges of dereliction of duty and impeding an official investigation. He has pleaded not guilty.

In earlier testimony, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin Demartino, who was assigned to process and transport Mr. Abed, testified he saw Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe, another SEAL accused in the case, punch the prisoner in the stomach, and blood come from the prisoner’s mouth.

Petty Officer Demartino told the court Petty Officer Huertas and fellow SEAL Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe were also in the narrow holding room and that he was the closest person to Pettery Officer McCabe at the time of the alleged assault.

All three SEALs could have received only a disciplinary reprimand, but insisted on a military trial to clear their names and save their careers.

If convicted, Petty Officer Huertas could face up to a year in prison.

A military judge ordered that trials for Petter Officers Huertas and Keefe, of Yorktown, Va., be held in Iraq so they could face Mr. Abed. The Iraqi government refused to transfer him to the U.S. to testify.

Petty Officer Keefe also is accused of failing to safeguard the prisoner.

Petty Officer McCabe of Perrysburg, Ohio, is charged with assaulting Mr. Abed and is scheduled to be court-martialed May 3 in Virginia.

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