Wednesday, May 19, 2004

First Abu Ghraib Court-Martial

Spc. Jeremy Sivits has received a year jail sentence as well as a demotion to private and a bad-conduct discharge in the first of seven courts-martial of the US soldiers involved in the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. According to Reuters

Despite a tearful plea to be allowed to stay in uniform, the 24-year-old military police reservist was also thrown out of the army on a bad conduct discharge. It added up to the maximum penalty, after he had recounted beatings and abuse by soldiers at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail, notorious under Saddam Hussein.

A plea bargain means Sivits is now expected to testify at courts martial against up to six members of his unit, three of whom were arraigned on Wednesday on much graver charges.

"We must send a message to other soldiers, to our nation and to the Iraqi people that the American military does not tolerate such behavior," said the prosecutor, Captain John McCabe.

It is a bit confusing how a plea bargain could have resulted in the maximum penalty. Evidently, the bargain involved submitting to a special court-martial rather than a general (and presumably more severe) court-martial, according to CNN.
Sivits' plea, according to the Army, was part of a pretrial agreement, the military equivalent of a plea deal. In return for pleading guilty, Sivits was tried in a special court-martial rather than the more severe general court-martial. In addition, Sivits agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, testify truthfully, and testify in all upcoming proceedings.

This is an important factor to consider because, in general, a plea-bargain indicates a reduced penalty, which does not seem to be the case here. Captain McCabe's comments (quoted above) indicate the seriousness with which the military is dealing with these crimes.

On the other hand, it must be remembered that the exemplary benefit of this trial works both ways. While punishing the guilty parties sends a message to US servicemen not to commit similar behavior, letting the punishment fit the crime also sends an important message about Western justice to the Iraqi people. Returning to the Reuters article:
"It's been an open and fair trial, which is something Iraq has not seen a lot of before," said acting human rights minister Bakhtiyar Amin.

Others were unimpressed: "It's a kangaroo court, set up just to placate Iraqis," said Halla Azzawi, whose son is in Abu Ghraib. "I wish they would get death."

Mr. Amin apparently gets it, while Azzawi does not. The crimes these people committed were foul but they were nowhere near deserving of death. None of their victims were killed or even permanently harmed. It is precisely this culture of blood feud and honor killing which has doomed democracy in the Middle East. If the Iraqi people are going to be an example of self-government to the rest of the region, they are going to have to learn this.

NOTE: It may be that some of the victims are owed reparations, but their own crimes which landed them in Abu Ghraib in the first place would be a relevant factor in answering that question. My guess is that this will not be done, which is perhaps a valid criticism of the US approach to crime in general as well as in these particular cases. But that is the maximum criticism I would be willing to consider. On balance this trial and, hopefully, those of the other six accused, will serve as a useful model of how a civilized society deals with its own malefactors.

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