The just-concluded military trials of three exonerated Navy SEALs showed the terrorism suspect at the center of the case to be one of the most dangerous men in Iraq.
Ahmed Hashim Abed initially was described as the insurgent who planned the killings of four Blackwater security guards in Fallujah in 2004, with two of their charred bodies infamously hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
But the three SEALs who captured Abed — and were court-martialed afterward — nabbed a far more notorious figure, according to trial testimony and an intelligence report.
Abed is thought to have committed a series of killings, including beheadings, in western Anbar province as a leading al Qaeda operative. He remains in an Iraqi prison awaiting trial in that country’s criminal court system.
A SEAL team captured Abed in Iraq in September. The team’s post-capture report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, said Abed had in his possession a loaded pistol, nearly $6,000 in U.S. cash, five identification cards and one passport.
The report also said he was responsible for recruiting insurgents, trafficking weapons and staging ambushes and attacks with improvised explosive devices.
Abed’s status as a most-wanted killer is one reason many Americans rallied around the three SEALs, who were accused of hitting him after capture. They celebrated after the last defendant, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe, was found not guilty Thursday of assaulting Abed by a seven-member military jury in Norfolk, Va.
“As they say, SEALs 3 — Terrorist 0,” said a posting on the Facebook page Support the Navy SEALs who Captured Ahmed Hashim Abed, which boasts more than 123,000 members.
Neal Puckett, Petty Officer McCabe’s lead civilian attorney, summoned several senior military officers to the witness stand to tell the jury why the SEALs set out that September night to capture Abed on an Iraqi judge’s warrant.
“We had a high-level SEAL commander testify as to all of the allegations that were still pending against this guy, and why he was a target and why they went out to get him on an Iraqi arrest warrant,” Mr. Puckett told The Times. “Most of it had to do with all the crimes against the Iraq people. He was responsible for I don’t know how many different deaths of Iraqis, in addition to the Fallujah incident.”
Petty Officer McCabe was the only one charged with striking Abed, based on an accusation from the base master-at-arms, Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin DeMartino. Petty Officer McCabe also was exonerated of lying and dereliction of duty. At separate trials in Baghdad last month, Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe were cleared of related charges.
Lawyer Monica Lombardi, who represented Petty Officer Huertas, said charges never should have been filed by Maj. Gen. Charles Cleveland, who heads the special-operations component of U.S. Central Command.
Gen. Cleveland first moved to punish the three himself at nonjudicial proceedings. But the SEALs maintained their innocence and rejected the punishment. Gen. Cleveland then ordered courts-martial.
Ms. Lombardi, a former U.S. Coast Guard judge advocate, said Gen. Cleveland was not served well by his legal advisers: The only witness, besides accused terrorist Abed, to testify about the supposed beating of the suspect was Petty Officer DeMartino. But trial evidence showed he provided inconsistent statements and had left his post when he was supposed to be watching the captured Abed.
Gen. Cleveland “was absolutely not briefed properly,” said Ms. Lombardi, who is now in private practice. “Because this would never have happened had he been briefed properly. I’m a 20-year veteran, and I briefed many, many admirals over my career. That’s based on my experience as a staff judge advocate briefing admirals on the viability of a case. I researched my witnesses before I ever briefed an admiral.”
Petty Officer McCabe’s defense team sought to discredit Petty Officer DeMartino and Abed, who testified that he was struck several times while hooded and handcuffed. “We’re here because a mass murderer, a vile person cloaked in a human body, claims he was beaten,” lawyer Haytham Faraj told the jury, according to the Associated Press.
Outrage from the public was so great that Gen. Cleveland felt compelled to release a statement in his own defense on Friday, the day after Petty Officer McCabe’s acquittal.
“I take my responsibility as a commander and convening authority very seriously and did not make the decision to refer these charges to courts-martial lightly,” Gen. Cleveland said. “While I had preferred to handle the incident administratively, Petty Officers Huertas, McCabe and Keefe exercised their right to have this matter handled by a court-martial. The evidence presented reasonable grounds to believe that offenses had been committed and that Petty Officers Huertas, McCabe, and Keefe had committed those offenses. In the interests of justice and to maintain good order and discipline, I chose to proceed with the courts-martial.
“Despite the opinion of some of those who preferred that these charges not proceed, I allowed these charges to go forward because I truly believe that the best process known for uncovering the truth, when the facts are contested, is that process which is found in our adversarial justice system. There is no better way to discover the truth than by presenting evidence to an unbiased panel of members, having witnesses testify under oath, and having that testimony subject to vigorous cross-examination.”
The SEALs’ supporters said a positive outcome of their trials is that warriors in the field know the military justice system will not automatically believe accusers in a detainee-abuse case. In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and other prisoner-abuse cases, the military has placed a high priority on treating captives humanely.
“With all three Navy SEALs now cleared of all charges in this case, I believe this sends a very positive signal to the men and women in uniform who are fighting for America around the world today,” said Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and the SEALs’ most prominent champion in Congress.
Said Mr. Puckett: “Had any of them been convicted, I think it would have had a chilling effect on special-forces guys, the SEALs. You can take some solace in the fact, if you’re going to be judged by your own, rather than some kind of international tribunal or something like that, you have a chance at a fair outcome. That, I think, speaks very well of the American military justice system.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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