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Posted September 27, 2005 in Bystanders
"Rogue Soldiers or Following Orders at Abu Ghraib? Lynndie England's Sentencing Puts End to Prison Scandal," ABC News (September 27, 2005)

Rogue Soldiers or Following Orders at Abu Ghraib?
Lynndie England's Sentencing Puts End to Prison Scandal

Sep. 27, 2005 - Pfc. Lynndie England, the small-town girl whose smiling face sparked anger at the U.S. military around the world, is about to learn her fate. The tomboyish American soldier who once posed for a photograph holding a leash tied to a hooded Iraqi prisoner quickly became the most recognizable figure in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

It's been almost three years since the U.S. soldiers snapped those photos and England is the last of the nine convicted Army reservists to be punished. Two others -- then-Cpl. Charles Graner and former Spc. Sabrina Harman -- have been convicted at trial and the remaining six made plea deals. England, 22, was found guilty of one count of conspiracy, four counts of maltreating detainees and one count of committing an indecent act. She was acquitted on a second conspiracy count. The jury that convicted her will begin considering her sentence today, and she could receive a maximum of nine years in prison.

The soldiers involved claimed they were simply following orders or that their superiors tacitly condoned their behavior and the Pentagon has cleared all but one of the top five commanders at Abu Ghraib of any wrongdoing.

Fun or Work?

As soon as they came to light, the photographs became notorious around the world. In one image, England gives a thumbs up sign as she points to the genitals of an Iraqi man who has his head covered by a bag. In another, soldiers pose grinning behind naked Iraqis piled one on top of each other. Yet another photo shows a smiling soldier giving a thumbs up sign with the bloody corpse of an Iraqi man in a body bag in the background.

The soldiers, it seems, snapped scores of photos as if it were routine procedure on those nights at the end of 2003. It was right around England's 20th birthday and she often came to visit Graner, her boyfriend at the time. The cell blocks 1-A and 1-B were run by military intelligence, and their experts and private civilian contractors performed the interrogations. At all other times, the detainees were under the care of the military police unit to which England and her colleagues belonged.

On the first day of her trial, England told the judge she initially resisted taking part in the abuse at the Baghdad prison, but caved in to peer pressure. "I could have said, 'No,' " she told the presiding judge, Col. James Pohl. "I knew it was wrong."

She said she did not want to point at the man's genitals but Graner or another soldier pressured her into it. "I said, 'No, no way,' " she recalled to the judge. "But they were being very persistent, bugging me, so I said, 'OK, whatever.' "

But one soldier there that night, Spc. Joseph Darby, turned over photos to the Army's criminal investigation division.

The military launched an investigation and a highly confidential report was released in February 2004.

Worldwide Indignation

It wasn't until April 28, 2004, that the public found out about Abu Ghraib's infamous prison guards. CBS aired the photos soon after they appeared on the covers of newspapers around the world. A week later, The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, who obtained the Army's confidential 53-page report, wrote that the government knew all along that "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" were going on at Abu Ghraib.

Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, the author of the report, cites evidence from sworn statements that "guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses," according to Hersh. Harman, one of the accused M.P.s, testified to the Army in Taguba's report that it was her job to keep detainees awake, including one hooded prisoner who was placed on a box with wires attached to his fingers, toes and penis. Referring to Military Intelligence, she stated, "MI wanted to get them to talk."

England's Pretrial

England, seven months pregnant with Graner's child at the time, testified at her pretrial hearing in August 2004 that the photos were taken by fellow soldiers as they were "just joking around, having some fun, during the night shift."

"I mean, so to us, we were doing our job, which meant we were doing what we were told. And the outcome was what they wanted. They just told us, 'hey, you're doing great. Keep it up,' " she recalled.

Following her pretrial hearing her lawyer Richard Hernandez said, "What the government wants you to believe is this was a rogue band of adequately trained soldiers who went behind their chain of command to do whatever they wanted to do. Nothing can be further from the truth."

Her lawyers lost their bid to call 160 witnesses, topped by some of the higher-ups in the Army, the Pentagon and even the White House but it did cause quite a stir to have Vice President Dick Cheney on the list. The Army claimed England and her cohorts abused prisoners for their own amusement and without the knowledge of senior leadership.

Virginia Grown

Born in Ashland, Ky., England grew up in a small West Virginia town. An independent sort known to wear Army fatigues, she joined the Reserves while she was a junior in high school. A school psychologist who worked with her when she was a child said she was oxygen-deprived at birth, speech impaired and had trouble learning to read, according to testimony during her mistrial.

England worked in a chicken processing plant and was briefly married before joining the Army Reserve's Military Police company to pay for college. England was trained as an administrative specialist and worked at the crowded Abu Ghraib prison, 20 miles west of Baghdad. She would frequently visit Graner in the prison's "hard tier"-- cells where more dangerous inmates stayed.

Harman also grew up in Virginia. Her dream was a career in law enforcement, like her father and her brother before her. To get experience for that goal and money for college, she joined the Army Reserves. Early in 2003, her company was mobilized and on its way to Iraq. She left behind a job as assistant manager at a pizza shop in Alexandria, Va.

Harman says she got very little training leading up to her stint at Abu Ghraib. "The only training I remember there was the riot control. That was it," she said to ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas. She also said she never had heard of the Geneva Conventions, which includes restrictions on the treatment of prisoners.

Brass Off the Hook?

The only military brass to fall was Gen. Janis Karpinski. Karpinski, an Army Reserve brigadier general, was commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade and placed in charge of military prisons in Iraq despite never having run a prison system. The Pentagon cleared all the other commanders, laying most of the blame on the independent action of soldiers in the prison.

The report drew criticism from human-rights groups and some Democrats in Congress, who said the Bush administration and Pentagon were making low-ranking soldiers pay for abuse more or less condoned by the top brass including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

England's first trial ended in a mistrial. Her guilty plea, which had reduced the number of charges brought against her, was thrown out by the judge. Pohl declared he was not convinced that the soldier knew what she was doing was wrong.

Under military law, a guilty plea can only be accepted if the judge is convinced the defendant knew that what he or she was doing was illegal.

The action came after Graner testified at England's sentencing hearing that pictures he took of England holding a naked prisoner on a leash at Abu Ghraib were meant to be used as a training tool for other guards.

Back to Square One

When England pleaded guilty on the first day of her trial, she told the judge she knew that the pictures were being taken purely for the amusement of the guards. Pohl said the two statements contradicted each other. "You can't have a one-person conspiracy," the judge said.

Graner, the alleged father of her now 11-month-old son, was convicted of abuse charges in January after a military trial. Labeled the abuse ringleader, he received a 10-year sentence. In April, he married another guard convicted in the scandal, former Spc. Megan Ambuhl, who did not serve prison time but was discharged from the Army.

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Category: Bystanders