(CNSNews.com) – About 160,000 people have signed a pair of petitions calling on top military commanders to drop the charges brought against three Navy SEALs over the alleged punching of a terrorist in Iraq.
The petitions will be sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Maj. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, commanding general of Special Operations Command Central, who ordered the court martial, and to Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of Naval Operations.
The petitions were circulated by the offices of Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), which gained more than 40,000 signatures, and Human Events, the conservatives weekly that gained 118,000 names, said Tara Setmayer, spokeswoman for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.).
Burton and Rohrabacher will be joined by one of the SEALs, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew V. McCabe, 24 of Perrysburg, Ohio, his attorney Neal Puckett, and retired Navy SEAL Capt. Larry Bailey at a Capitol Hill event on Thursday, March 4.
The other two SEALs charged in the case are Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathon E. Keefe, 25, of Yorktown, Va., and Petty Officer 1st Class Julio A. Huertas Jr., 28, of Blue Island, Ill. They are not scheduled to be at Thursday’s gathering.
A military judge moved the trials of Keefe and Huertas to Camp Victory in Baghdad, a military base in Iraq, after defense attorneys asked that their clients be able to face their accusers. McCabe’s attorney, Neal Puckett, did not request that his client be able to face his accuser, thus McCabe’s trial will proceed in Norfolk, Va.
The three SEALs were part of a team that captured Ahmed Hashim Abed, the alleged architect of the murder of four Blackwater USA security guards in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. The bodies of the four Americans were mutilated, burned, and hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
McCabe is charged with assault for allegedly punching Abed in the mid-section, with dereliction of duty for failing to protect Abed, and with making a false statement.
Keefe is charged with dereliction of duty for not protecting the terror suspect and making a false statement. Huertas is charged with dereliction of duty, making a false statement, and impeding an investigation. He pleaded not guilty at his arraignment.
If convicted, the maximum penalty for all three SEALs would be up to one year of confinement, forfeiture of part of their pay, and a bad conduct discharge. The charges are equivalent to misdemeanor charges, or a special court-martial in military terms. A general court-martial applies to more serious charges, or felonies in civilian standards.