FORT MEADE, Maryland – A military jury convicted an Army dog handler of tormenting an Abu Ghraib detainee in a trial that produced evidence of high-level pressure and ground-level confusion about interrogations at the prison in Iraq.
Sgt. Santos A. Cardona is the 11th soldier convicted of crimes stemming from the abuse of detainees at the prison in late 2003 and early 2004.
Cardona, 32, was convicted Thursday of dereliction of duty and aggravated assault for unlawfully threatening a detainee with his dog.
But the panel of four officers and three enlisted soldiers acquitted Cardona of other serious charges he faced, including unlawfully having his dog bite a detainee, conspiring with another dog handler to frighten prisoners into soiling themselves and lying to investigators about the alleged game.
The jury began deliberating Cardona's sentence Thursday evening and will resume on Friday. Prosecutors asked that he receive a year in prison and a bad conduct discharge; the defense called for no prison time and a return to duty.
During a two-hour sentencing hearing, prosecutor Maj. Matthew Miller recommended confinement of 12 months and a bad conduct discharge. Cardona's military lawyer, Capt. Kirsten M. Mayer, asked for no prison time and a return to duty.
Cardona, a 12 1/2-year veteran, stood at attention in his green dress uniform as the verdict was read in court.
He was convicted of allowing his dog to bark within inches of the face of a kneeling detainee, Kamel Miza'l Nayil, in December 2003 at the request of another soldier who was not an interrogator.
Miller said abuse of prisoners hurts the war on terrorism by damaging America's image.
"You can win all kinds of battles and end up losing the whole dang war basically for boneheaded decisions and misjudgments," he told the jury during the sentencing hearing.
But Mayer said Miller was exaggerating.
"What we have here is a soldier who let his dog get too close to a detainee, and the dog barked," she told the panel.
Prosecutors had portrayed Cardona as part of a small group of corrupt soldiers who enjoyed tormenting prisoners — even competing with another dog handler to frighten detainees into soiling themselves.
But Cardona's civilian defense lawyer, Harvey J. Volzer, said Cardona had done what his training and senior officers demanded: protect fellow soldiers and scare detainees.
Cardona released his dog to bite detainee Mohammed Bollendia after Bollendia ran at and struck another military policeman, former Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., witnesses for both sides testified.
The prosecution claimed the MPs provoked the attack and could easily have restrained Bollendia.
Volzer said Cardona's dog, Duco, barked at prisoners because he was supposed to.
"The reason you're going through with dogs is you've been ordered to patrol," Volzer said in his closing argument. "You're doing it because you want to scare these people."
Although none of the offenses was alleged to have occurred during interrogations, Cardona's defense team focused on interrogation policies — in particular, the changes in rules and command that followed Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller's visit to Abu Ghraib in late August and early September 2003, when Miller was commander of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Miller wrote in a subsequent report that the military police who guarded detainees at Abu Ghraib should become "actively engaged in setting the conditions" for interrogations.
After Miller left Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, then commander of U.S. forces there, issued three different memos in a month's time authorizing harsher interrogation techniques such as stress positions, sleep deprivation and dogs at Abu Ghraib — but only with Sanchez' written authorization.
The changing policies caused confusion, according to testimony by Col. Thomas M. Pappas, who assumed management of the prison in late 2003. Pappas was reprimanded in May 2005 for approving a request for dogs in an interrogation without Sanchez' OK — something Pappas testified he believed at the time the policy allowed.
Shortly after Cardona and four other dog-handling teams arrived in November 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was said to have taken an intense interest in interrogations at Abu Ghraib, even calling nightly for reports, according to trial testimony.
The use of dogs in interrogations has since been banned by a November 2005 Pentagon directive.
Hina Shamsi, a lawyer for the New York-based civil-rights advocacy group Human Rights First, said the evidence "cries out for a systemic investigation at the highest levels of command" to learn who authorized interrogation techniques her group considers torture.
Shamsi also said that as the Army revises its field manual on interrogation, it must make clear what interrogation techniques are acceptable.
"It shouldn't be left to individual soldiers to determine what is permissible or not," she said.
Ten other low-ranking soldiers have been convicted in the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which detainees were photographed in frightening, painful or sexually humiliating positions. Army dog handler Sgt. Michael Smith was sentenced in March to 179 days in prison for offenses that included maltreatment, conspiracy and dereliction of duty.
In April, the Army charged Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, the former head of the Abu Ghraib interrogation center, with cruelty and maltreatment of detainees, dereliction and other criminal offenses. He is the highest-ranking officer at Abu Ghraib to face criminal charges.