BAGHDAD, Iraq – Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits (search) wept and apologized after receiving the maximum penalty of a year in prison and a bad conduct discharge Wednesday in the first court-martial (search) stemming from abuse of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib (search) prison.
His testimony will now be used to prosecute other Americans accused of mistreating prisoners — most immediately, three men from his reserve unit who also appeared in court Wednesday.
Sivits pleaded guilty to four counts for taking pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated, including some of the photographs that triggered the abuse scandal and sparked international outrage when they were broadcast and published last month.
"I'd like to apologize to the Iraqi people and those detainees," Sivits said, breaking into tears. "I should have protected those detainees, not taken the photos."
His hearing marked the start of American efforts to investigate who was responsible for the abuse and punish the guilty, a process expected to stretch to the highest levels of the military.
Within hours of Sivits' court-martial, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee (search) in Washington that abuse of prisoners in Iraq will be investigated thoroughly up the chain of command, "and that includes me."
Sanchez, who ordered an inquiry into alleged mistreatment last January, said continuing probes may result in more criminal charges in connection with abuses at Abu Ghraib, where Saddam Hussein's regime tortured and executed thousands of political opponents. Sanchez said some officers who received career-ending reprimands may also face criminal charges.
Sivits, 24, was the first of seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company, based in Cresaptown, Md., to stand trial in the scandal. While Sivits faced what the Army calls a special court-martial, similar to a misdemeanor trial, the six others will probably face general courts-martial, which can yield more severe punishments.
Three of them — Sgt. Javal Davis, Staff Sgt. Ivan L. Frederick and Spc. Charles Graner Jr. — appeared in court inside the heavily guarded Green Zone but entered no pleas. The judge, Col. James Pohl, set a new hearing for them June 21.
Sivits cooperated with investigators and gave statements against fellow soldiers in exchange for reduced charges. He told the court he saw one soldier punch an Iraqi in the head and other guards stomp on the hands and feet of detainees. He also recounted that prisoners were stripped and forced to form a human pyramid.
His lawyer, 1st Lt. Stanley L. Martin, asked the court for leniency, saying Sivits had contributed to society in the past, including volunteer service with the peacekeeping force in Bosnia.
Sivits begged the judge to allow him to remain in the Army, which he said had been his life's goal.
"I have learned huge lessons, sir," he said. "You can't let people abuse people like they have done."
The judge rejected their appeals, saying Sivits knew the prisoner treatment violated the Geneva Conventions. He pronounced Sivits guilty of two counts of mistreating detainees; one count of dereliction of duty for failing to protect them from abuse and cruelty; and one count for forcing a prisoner "to be positioned in a pile on the floor to be assaulted by other soldiers."
In an emotional description of events on the evening of Nov. 8, Sivits said he was working on generators outside Abu Ghraib when Frederick asked him to accompany him to the prison facility.
Sivits took a detainee with him, and when he arrived at the scene where the crimes took place, there were seven other detainees.
"I heard Cpl. Graner yelling in Arabic at the detainees," he said. "I saw one of the detainees lying on the floor. They were laying there on the floor, sandbags over their heads."
Davis and another soldier, Pfc. Lynndie England, 21, were "stamping on their toes and hands."
"Graner punched the detainee in the head or temple area," Sivits said. "I said. 'ÄÉ think you might have knocked him out."'
Sivits also said: "Graner complained that he had injured his hand and said, "Damn, that hurt."'
Sivits said all prisoners were then stripped and forced to form a human pyramid.
He quoted one of the other six accused soldiers, whom he did not identify, as saying guards were "told to keep doing what they were doing by military intelligence." He added that he did not believe the soldier.
Graner's lawyer, Guy Womack, said Wednesday his client was just following orders, and that U.S. military intelligence, the CIA and civilian contractors directed the abuse.
"The photographs were being staged and created by these intelligence officers and, of course, we have the two photographs that prove that they were present and supervising," Womack told a morning news program.
He said Graner had sought clarification of his orders and complained to his superiors about what he was being asked to do.
"All of them consistently said that he was to follow the order and not question it. So he didn't," Womack said, adding that Sivits, too, was simply following orders and should have been acquitted.
Officials said Sivits would be transferred to a military facility — possibly in Germany or the United States — to serve his sentence. Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, can reduce or throw out any of the charges, and the sentences will be reviewed by the U.S. military's appeals court in Washington.
In Sivits' home town of Hyndman, Pa., more than 200 residents wore yellow ribbons and clutched small American flags during a candlelight vigil to support him.
His father, Daniel Sivits, said: "I am veteran of the Vietnam War and I want to say one thing — Jeremy is always a vet in my heart and in my mind."
Earlier Wednesday, Davis, Frederick and Graner waived their right to have charges read in court after defense attorneys complained they were denied access to two victims of abuse who were government witnesses. The judge asked prosecutors to explain.
The abuse scandal inflamed public opinion throughout the Arab world, fueling already deep skepticism about America's commitment to building democracy in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam.
In hopes of quelling the outrage, U.S. officials allowed news coverage of the proceedings. Nine Arab newspapers and the Arab television networks Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya were among 34 news organizations allowed in the courtroom.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, said a fair and impartial trial "will go a far way in demonstrating to people that, yes, these pictures did happen, yes, these acts did happen, but we're taking the right corrective action to investigate prosecute and bring to trial those accused of these crimes. "
Still, Human Rights Watch criticized U.S. occupation authorities for refusing to let Iraqi and international human rights groups attend the court-martial. And Amnesty International cautioned that the proceedings needed to go farther.
"It's important that authorities have begun to take action, but true justice requires more than the convictions of several lower-level service members," said Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
About 100 Iraqis rallied at the edge of the Green Zone, carrying a poster with the picture of England holding a dog leash with an Iraqi prisoner at the end.
Reporters from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya questioned the decision to bar video and audio recording in the courtroom.
"Those who are executing the laws and the orders are not the problem ... Punishment of the officials who gave the orders is what matters," Samer al-Ubedi, who said his brother died in U.S. custody, told Al-Jazeera. "The punishment must be as severe as the crime."