Court-Martial of Navy SEAL Opens in Iraq

April 21, 2010 - 5:25 AM
The SEALs' case has gained widespread sympathy in the United States as well as support from at least 20 lawmakers in Congress who have urged U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to drop the charges.
Baghdad (AP) - Opening arguments began Wednesday in the court-martial of a Navy SEAL accused in the abuse of an Iraqi prisoner suspected of masterminding the killings in 2004 of four U.S. private security contractors.
 
Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas, wearing his blue Navy uniform, appeared in a military courtroom at the Victory Base Camp outside Baghdad to answer charges of dereliction of duty and impeding an official investigation. He has pleaded not guilty.
 
Huertas, 28, of Blue Island, Illinois, is the first of three Navy SEALs to go on trial in connection with the alleged assault of the Iraqi prisoner, Ahmed Hashim Abed.
 
Abed was arrested last September on charges of masterminding the grisly killings of four Blackwater security guards whose burned corpses were dragged through the Iraqi city of Fallujah west of Baghdad. Two of the guards' bodies were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River in the insurgent attack.
 
The SEALs' case has gained widespread sympathy in the United States as well as support from at least 20 lawmakers in Congress who have urged U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to drop the charges.
 
The sailors could have received a disciplinary reprimand, but insisted on a military trial to clear their names and save their careers.
 
If convicted by the six-person military jury, their punishment could include jail time.
 
In a rare ruling in January, a military judge ordered that trials for Huertas and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe of Yorktown, Virginia, to be held in Iraq so that they could face Abed in court. Abed is still being held in Iraq, and the U.S. government refused to bring him to the United States to testify.
 
Huertas and Keefe are both accused of failing to safeguard the prisoner. Huertas is also accused of attempting to influence the testimony of another SEAL.
 
The third SEAL in the case, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe of Perrysburg, Ohio, is charged with punching Abed in the face at Camp Schwedler, a U.S. base near Fallujah. McCabe is scheduled to be court-martialed May 3 in Norfolk, Virginia, where the three sailors are based.
 
Huertas has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither he nor the other two SEALS have been held in custody.
 
Keefe's trial also was to begin last week at the court-martial room at the Victory Base Camp, but his legal team was delayed by the volcano eruption in Iceland that grounded tens of thousands of flights across the world.