US soldiers abused prisoners 'for fun,' court told

8.15am - By JIM LONEY

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina - US soldiers who abused Iraqi prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison did it for fun, a military investigator testified on Tuesday at the start of a hearing in the case of a female soldier photographed holding a naked Iraqi on a leash.

A military court at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, convened to decide whether Pfc Lynndie England will be tried for the prisoner abuse that outraged the Arab world and embarrassed the Bush administration as it sought to stabilise Iraq.

Chief Warrant Officer Paul Arthur, the lead criminal investigator into the abuse at Abu Ghraib, was the first witness to take the stand in a red-brick judge advocate's building in Fort Bragg, where the pregnant England has been stationed since her return from Iraq.

Arthur told the military court that England said in a sworn statement in January that one of her superiors, Spc Charles Graner, told her to pose for the infamous photograph of the naked Iraqi prisoner on a leash, one of a series of pictures.

US media reports have said Graner, who has also been charged, is the father of England's child.

"(She said) Graner suggested she pose in a photograph with him (the prisoner). And pose for the picture as if she was dragging him," Arthur said, repeating several times that England and other soldiers said they were just joking around.

Asked if he had determined why the US soldiers had abused the prisoners, Arthur said: "Basically it was just for fun ... and to vent their frustration."

England, dressed in camouflage uniform, black boots and beret, entered the courthouse moments before the hearing began, ignoring dozens of media cameras and reporters.

Inside the courtroom, she answered "Yes Ma'am" and "No Ma'am" to a series of simple questions from Col. Denise Arn, the investigating officer, about the charges she faces.

England, 21, was charged along with six other US military police reservists in a scandal that prompted an apology from US President George W Bush, who placed the blame on a small group of soldiers.

England has said she was following orders when she appeared in the pictures, which also included one in which she pointed at a prisoner's genitals, a cigarette dangling from her lips.

Addressing that, Special Agent Warren Worth, a military crimes investigator, said he found no evidence that orders came from further up the chain of command than Graner and Staff Sgt Ivan Frederick, another of the seven soldiers charged.

"If we're talking about persons higher ... I had no indication that anybody knew," Worth told the court.

The hearing is called an Article 32 investigation. Arn will decide whether the case should go to trial. It has been delayed since June as the military filed new charges and England's defenders made changes to their legal team.

She is charged with conspiracy to mistreat Iraqi prisoners, assaulting prisoners, committing acts prejudicial to good order, committing indecent acts, disobeying an order and creating and possessing sexually explicit photographs. Some of the charges were not related to prisoner abuse.

Maximum penalties include a dishonourable discharge and up to 38 years in prison if convicted.

England's lawyers, who have called their client a "poster child" for flawed US war policies, will be allowed to call witnesses at the hearing. But their request to call US Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the witness stand was denied, the lawyers said.

England, a member of the 372nd Military Police Company, returned to the United States from Iraq after becoming pregnant.

Lawyers for some of the accused say intelligence officers told them to soften up prisoners for questioning. The Pentagon has denied sanctioning rough treatment to make inmates talk.

- REUTERS

Herald Feature: Iraq

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