BAGHDAD — An Iraqi prisoner suspected of masterminding an attack that killed four American contractors testified Wednesday at a court-martial of a Navy SEAL that he was beaten by U.S. troops while hooded and tied to a chair,
But defense witnesses for Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas on the trial's opening day cast strong doubt on the testimony by the terror suspect and that of a fellow sailor who claimed he saw the assault.
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 crowds dragged two of the burnt bodies through the streets and hanged them from a bridge over the Euphrates River – pictures that became iconic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The images 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. Two of the Blackwater guards were former SEALs, the Navy's elite special forces team.
Ahmed Hashim Abed was arrested in the early hours last Sept. 1 during a raid on his home by U.S. and Iraqi security forces on multiple terrorism charges. He was the subject of a yearslong U.S. manhunt for the Blackwater killings.
He testified Wednesday that he was sitting in a chair with his hands bound behind him and hood over his head when he was hit from behind on the shoulder and back, fell to his knees and was then picked back up and struck in the stomach.
"It was very powerful. It was so hard I fell down again on my face because my hands were behind my back," he said, speaking Arabic through an interpreter.
"Once I was down they put their foot in my shoulder; I started saying 'please, please' – these were the only words that I knew," he testified.
Abed, who is being held by Iraqi authorities pending trial, was brought in to the court wearing his yellow prison jumpsuit.
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.
Huertas, 28, of Blue Island, Illinois, is the first of three SEALs to go on trial for the alleged assault. He's not accused of actually abusing the prisoner but of failing to safeguard him and attempting to influence the testimony of another service member.
A verdict in Huertas' case is expected as early as Thursday. He has pleaded not guilty and appeared in his dress blues in a military courtroom at Camp Victory on Baghdad's western outskirts.
If convicted, Huertas could face up to a year in prison.
Huertas' attorneys on Wednesday showed jurors photographs of Abed after the alleged beating that pictured a visible cut inside his lip, but no obvious signs of bruising or injuries anywhere else.
Later, Army dentist Capt. Curtis Schmidt testified that the cut inside Abed's lip could have been caused by a cold sore or a bite. At worst, Schmidt said, only an indirect blow – such as Abed's head hitting the floor without force – would have inflicted what he described as a minor injury. Schmidt testified as an expert for the defense and never examined Abed.
Two other military medics who saw Abed in the hours after the alleged incident cast doubt that he had been beaten while in U.S. custody.
In earlier testimony, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin DeMartino testified he saw SEAL Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe punch the prisoner in the stomach and watched blood spurt from his prisoner's mouth. DeMartino was assigned to guard and transport Abed and was the only witness who claimed he saw an assault.
DeMartino said Huertas and another SEAL, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe, also were in the narrow holding-room.
Of the 11 witnesses who testified – half of whom are special forces or intelligence officers who cannot be publicly identified – only one other said he saw convincing evidence of the assault. The SEAL commander who oversaw the raid testified he revisited Abed in his holding cell a few hours later and noticed dried blood around his mouth and a blood stain "bigger than a softball" on his clothes that he did not remember being there before.
The commander said he reported the evidence of abuse to his superiors, launching the investigation.
All three SEALs could have received only a disciplinary reprimand, but insisted on a military trial to clear their names and save their careers.