US troops accused of killing Iraqi detainees refuse to testify

TIKRIT, Iraq (AFP) — Four US soldiers accused of killing three Iraqi prisoners refused to give evidence on Thursday as a military hearing heard that one of the captives’ brains were blown out as he lay injured.

The troops followed the lead of several of their superior officers, invoking their right not to incriminate themselves before a legal panel set up at their unit’s base camp in the central Iraqi city of Tikrit.

The investigation of the four men from the famed “Rakkasans” — the 3rd Combat Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division — is expected to spotlight the US military’s controversial and opaque rules of engagement in Iraq.

Civilian defence lawyers have said orders from the Rakkasans’ commander, Colonel Michael Steele, called for troops to “kill all military age males” during a raid on May 9 on a suspected Al Qaeda base.

Civilian defence lawyers acting for Private Corey Clagett, Staff Sergeant Raymond Girouard, Specialist William Hunsaker and Specialist Juston Graber have argued that the defendants were following orders when they killed the Iraqis.

Clagett’s attorney, Paul Bergrin, also alleged that his client had been mistreated since he was arrested during the probe of the May 9 Operation Iron Triangle, when his unit raided a suspected Al Qaeda base.

Bergrin said Clagett was held in a two-metre cell and was forced to sleep in shackles. “He’s being treated like an animal, even though he’s presumed innocent,” the lawyer told the hearing.

Previous hearings have heard testimony that Clagett and Hunsaker killed their prisoners then lightly injured each other in order to support a story that the Iraqis had escaped from their plastic restraints and assaulted their captors.

On Thursday, the unit’s medic testified that after the first shooting one of the captives was still alive — although probably fatally wounded — and that later a single shot rang out and he found the victim definitively dead.

The platoon medic, Specialist Micah Bevins, said that at the time of their capture the Iraqis “didn’t show any signs of life-threatening injuries.” Later he returned to where the captives were being held and found two of them dead and one dying. He checked third’s pulse.

“There was nothing there to sustain life. The last few seconds of life,” he said.

The medic went to get body bags and heard a single shot ring out. When he returned he found the third detainee dead and his brains on the ground, he said during his cross-examination.

Later in the hearing, when shown a photograph of the prisoner, Bevins was asked how he could be sure that the victims brains had been blown out. “I don’t think anybody brought cottage cheese,” he told the hearing.

Another witness, Sergeant Armando Acevedo, gave evidence that supported the case that the defendants’ unit, Charlie Company, had set out for its objective not intending to take any prisoners alive.

He said that he heard a radio transmission after the Iraqis were taken: “We’re bringing back these detainees when they should be dead. But put them on the bird [helicopter] and bring them home.” Shortly afterwards, the three suspects were dead.

The hearing was adjourned until Friday, when military lawyers will decide whether there is enough evidence to bring charges at a full court-martial.

“It’s our position that you didn’t prove anything in this case,” Bergrin said for the defence.

The Rakkasans’ commander, Steele, and three more potential defence witnesses have also refused to testify. At previous hearings, witnesses have testified that before the mission Steele had urged troops to kill all the men they encountered.

International human rights watchdogs have criticised US tactics in Iraq, which are alleged to have caused needless civilian casualties, but the military refuses to publicly discuss its rules of engagement.

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