FORT HOOD, Texas - A military jury handed a 10-year prison sentence yesterday to Army Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., the convicted ringleader in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, who hours earlier tried to recast himself from the witness stand as a conscientious soldier who complained to superiors about the harsh treatment of detainees.
"I didn't enjoy anything I did there," Graner said in his first detailed comments on the international scandal touched off last year by graphic photographs of grinning U.S. soldiers subjecting Iraqi detainees to humiliating abuses.
"I did what I did," he said. "A lot of it was wrong. A lot of it was criminal."
Graner avoided the maximum punishment of 15 years in prison, but the 10-year sentence was the harshest any soldier charged in the scandal has received. Four soldiers have pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from probation to eight years in prison. Three others are awaiting trial.
Late yesterday afternoon, Graner, a 36-year-old former civilian prison guard from Uniontown, Pa., left the court building still wearing his dark-green dress uniform but with shackles on his wrists and ankles and under the escort of military police soldiers.
"I was a soldier," he said as he was led away. "If I did anything wrong, here I am."
One of seven Army Reserve soldiers from Maryland's 372nd Military Police Company to face charges, Graner was the first to test at a trial claims that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were directed by civilian and military interrogators who wanted prisoners "softened up" for questioning.
He was convicted late Friday on each of five charges against him, including assault, indecent acts and dereliction of duty.
The swift court-martial closed what had been an embarrassing chapter in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq since the photos showing naked, hooded detainees first emerged.
But it yielded few new details about the events at the prison or the scope of the abuses, and it again raised the question of whether any higher-ranking officers will be charged.
A military prosecutor, Maj. Michael Holley, said each case must be dealt with on its own terms. Yesterday, he urged the maximum sentence in the case against Graner, saying his abuse of Iraqi prisoners had tarnished the honor of the Army and hurt its moral standing in the world.
"You have to be in the Army to know, we exist on honor," Holley said.
In a joint statement with fellow prosecutor Capt. Chris Graveline, Holley said later yesterday: "We think it is important that the world was able to observe this court-martial."
No pay or benefits
As part of the sentence, Graner also will be dishonorably discharged after he serves his prison sentence and must forfeit all pay and benefits.
Lead defense attorney Guy Womack said his case was hurt before the trial began, when the presiding judge blocked a number of senior military leaders from testifying, either because they were deemed irrelevant or because they were under investigation and had invoked their right against self-incrimination.
"Perhaps I'm being cynical, but my impression is nothing will ever come from those investigations," Womack said.
Irma Graner said her family would keep working to shed light on the scandal that she said had unfairly snared her only son.
"You know, President Bush went on TV and said, 'Seven bad apples disgraced the nation.' Well, President Bush and [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld disgraced the nation," Irma Graner said.
"We're going to fight until the truth comes out. You know it's the higher-ups who should be on trial."
In addition to the seven members of the 372nd, one low-ranking military intelligence soldier, Pvt. Armin Cruz, was charged and has pleaded guilty in connection with the Abu Ghraib abuses.
A Pentagon report in August found that 23 military intelligence personnel and four civilian contractors were directly involved in the mistreatment of detainees and should be investigated.
In his testimony yesterday, Graner said he was reluctant at first to carry out orders from interrogators who told prison guards to keep detainees in the nude, yell at them, restrict their meals or handcuff them to their cells if they talked.
"A lot of our off-the-wall stuff came from civilian interrogators, but there also was a lot of crazy stuff from some of the soldiers who were [intelligence] handlers," Graner said.
He testified that he complained to many of his superiors but was consistently told to follow the directions of military intelligence. Graner also said he took photographs to document what was happening in the Iraqi prison, a chaotic place where detainees heard voices, played in their own feces, spit at guards and slammed their heads against the cell bars.
In nearly three hours of testimony, though, Graner did not discuss directly the scenes depicted in the graphic detainee photographs that stirred anti-American sentiment across the globe and for which he was convicted.
A nervous smile
He stammered when asked by his lawyer why he was smiling in the widely circulated abuse photograph. "I'm smiling now," he said. "And that's a nervous smile."
Through most of the testimony, Graner appeared serious and earnest. He leaned forward in the witness chair and gestured with his hands as he described his military background and recounted how he joined the Army Reserves after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. One of the hijacked planes crashed near his home in western Pennsylvania.
Graner said he was working a construction job nearby that day, and he heard the crash and saw the swarm of helicopters. His two children, he realized, "could have been near the impact, my ex-wife could have been near the impact. ... It was a rough couple of days."
He portrayed himself in Iraq as a savvy corrections officer who "probably knew the Geneva Conventions better than anybody else in my company at that time."
When the 372nd first arrived at Abu Ghraib in October 2003, he said, military and civilian interrogators approached him for help in questioning detainees - although Graner was not specific about what the intelligence agents asked him to do.
"They were asking, 'Hey, if such and such happened, would you be able, or would you be willing, to do this,'" he said.
Graner said his response was straightforward: "That's not what we're here for; we're not trained for that."
"Were they suggesting use of force?" Womack asked.
Graner took a drink of water and paused, considering his answer. Then he said carefully and without elaboration: "I don't think it was use of force, so much as it was irregular treatment."
Womack had hinted through the week that Graner could best explain what was behind the lurid detainee photographs that touched off a flurry of congressional and Pentagon inquiries.
But Graner did not take the witness stand until the sentencing hearing, when military law allowed him to make an unsworn statement and avoid questions from prosecutors.
Throughout the week, Graner had bantered inside and outside the small military courtroom with his family, his defense team, his few supporters in the gallery and reporters, offering his own trial commentary in sometimes odd sound bites.
'There's a war on'
"Today, you're going to find out what kind of monster I am," Graner joked darkly on his way into court at the start of his case.
When he headed out Friday night after his conviction, he gave a thumbs-up to signal he was OK.
Just after his sentence was announced yesterday, Graner was asked inside the courtroom whether he had any regrets. He said flatly, "There's a war on. Bad things happen."