BAGHDAD, Iraq – The media and public will be barred from witnessing the testimony of Iraqis in a hearing for U.S. Army soldiers accused of raping and murdering an Iraqi teenager, an Army commander has ruled.
The restriction was issued Monday after an appeal by the trial counsel to protect the witnesses, who fear they could be perceived as aiding U.S. forces and be targeted by insurgents. A copy of the order was seen Wednesday.
The Army is scheduled later this month to hold an Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a grand jury proceeding in which evidence of guilt is adjudged to see if a trial is merited. If the case goes to trial, the murder suspects could face the death penalty.
The hearing will be for five soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, four of whom are accused of raping and murdering 14-year-old Abeer al-Janabi near the town of Mahmoudiya on March 12. The fifth is accused of failing to report the crime.
"In recognition of the local national witnesses' significant concerns regarding their safety, access to the proceedings by members of the public and media will be restricted during the testimony of local nationals," said Col. Todd Ebel, the commanding officer of the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
The Iraqis covered by the media restrictions include family members of the alleged victims and members of the Iraqi army, Ebel said.
Ebel was responding to a written plea by trial counsel Capt. Alexander Pickands, who said that four of the five Iraqis approached to testify in the case have expressed "significant concerns regarding their safety."
They "cited phone calls and letters in which they were threatened with harm if they cooperated with U.S. forces during the investigation," Pickands wrote.
"The government believes that the likelihood that Iraqi witnesses will attend the proceedings or produce complete testimony will be jeopardized without assurances that they will not be exposed to the media or public scrutiny," Pickands wrote.
The soldiers accused of rape are Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Spc. James P. Barker, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard. They are also accused of killing her and three members of the girl's family, including a young sister. A fifth soldier, Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, is charged with failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have been a participant.
The accused allegedly saw the victim at a checkpoint in the town and plotted the attack for a week, according to federal court documents.
A former soldier, Steven D. Green, was arrested in June in North Carolina in connection with the case. He was discharged from the Army because of a personality disorder and likely will be tried in federal court. He has pleaded not guilty to one count of rape and four counts of murder.
The U.S. military has insisted it will punish soldiers who commit crimes against Iraqis. The attack was the latest in a string of allegations that U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq have killed civilians, including the alleged massacre of dozens in Haditha.