WASHINGTON – An Army dog handler was found guilty Tuesday of using his military dog to terrorize and humiliate detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison at the height of a wave of prisoner abuses.
A military jury in Fort Meade, Md., found Sgt. Michael J. Smith guilty on six of 13 charges that the soldier used his unmuzzled dog to harass and threaten inmates at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and early 2004.
Smith faces as many as 8 1/2 years in prison, the loss of all pay and a dishonorable discharge.
A decision on sentencing is expected as soon as today in a second phase of the court martial proceeding. If convicted of the original 13 charges, Smith would have faced 24 1/2 years in prison, the harshest potential sentence of any soldier charged in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal.
Smith becomes the 10th low-ranking soldier to be convicted or plead guilty as part of an abuse scandal that infuriated Iraqis and Muslims around the world and put the Bush administration on the defensive at a critical point in its effort to stabilize the country following the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Abu Ghraib became a notorious symbol of U.S. detention practices, including those at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and facilities elsewhere that have been denounced by human rights groups and, increasingly, by other governments.
A Pentagon spokesman said the verdict showed that the military has held soldiers accountable for abuses.
“What you’re seeing is what the department has committed itself to – a very broad and a very deep review of its detention operations across the board,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
But Avi Cover, an attorney for New York-based Human Rights First who observed the trial, argued that responsibility for the unconventional interrogation techniques “goes all the way to the Pentagon and even the secretary of defense.”
The defense argued that Smith believed he had authority from Col. Thomas M. Pappas, who oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib.
Pappas, who testified last week under a grant of immunity, said that he had incorrectly approved the use of a military dog in a prison interrogation because he misunderstood guidelines put in place by his commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. He was fined $8,000 and relieved of his command.
Smith, 24, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was the first of two dog handlers to face court martial for his actions at Abu Ghraib.
Sgt. Santos A. Cardona, 31, of Fullerton, Calif., goes on trial May 22.