BAGHDAD (AP) - A U.S. Navy SEAL was cleared Thursday of charges he covered upthe alleged beating of an Iraqi prisoner suspected of mastermindingthe grisly 2004 killings of four American security contractors.
The Blackwater guards' burned bodies were dragged through thestreets, and two were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates riverin the former insurgent hotbed of Fallujah, in what became aturning point in the Iraq war.
On Thursday, a six-man Navy jury found Petty Officer 1st ClassJulio Huertas not guilty of dereliction of duty and impeding theinvestigation. The jury heard too many differences between thetestimony of a sailor who claimed he witnessed the Sept. 1 assaultat a U.S. base outside Fallujah and statements from a half-dozenothers who denied his account.
Smiling and composed as he left the courthouse at the U.S.military's Camp Victory on Baghdad's western outskirts, Huertassaid he felt vindicated.
"It's a big weight off my shoulders," said Huertas, 29, of BlueIsland, Illinois. "Compared to all the physical activity we gothrough, this has been mentally more challenging."
Huertas said he would rejoin the SEALs, the Navy's elite specialforces, as soon as possible. His was the first trial of threeVirginia Beach, Va.-based SEALs accused in the assault of AhmedHashim Abed and its alleged cover up.
The case has drawn fire from at least 20 members of Congress andother Americans who see it as coddling terrorists to overcompensatefor the notorious Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Thursday's verdict wasmet by anger and sad shrugs from Iraqis who said they no longerexpect to see U.S. troops held accountable for atrocities or otherabuses.
"They would release him even if he had killed an Iraqi and notjust beaten him," said Ahmed Abdul Aziz Khudaeir, teacher inFallujah.
Abed, who is a suspected terrorist, claimed in his testimonythat he had nothing to do with the Blackwater attack At least twoof the Blackwater guards were former SEALs, giving the sailors whatprosecutor Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jason Grover called a motive for beatingAbed.
In his closing argument, Grover pleaded with the jury to holdHuertas responsible as an example of "why we're better than theterrorists."
Huertas' lawyers, however, cast strong doubt that Abed was everbeaten in the first place. Photographs of Abed's face and bodytaken in the days immediately after the alleged attack show avisible cut inside his lip but no obvious signs of bruising orinjuries anywhere else.
"There was no abuse," Monica Lombardi, Huertas' civilianattorney, told the jury. She said Abed could have bit his lip onpurpose to cast blame on U.S. troops, calling it "classic terroristtraining."
Dressed in a bright yellow jumpsuit and with his hands bound infront of him, Abed testified he was knocked to the floor and stoodup by a U.S. guard, only to fall again after being punched in thestomach. He said he bled heavily over his white dishdasha, thetraditional long garment worn by some Arabs.
That at least partially matched the account given by PettyOfficer 3rd Class Kevin DeMartino, who told the jury that he sawone of the accused SEALs, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe,punch Abed in the stomach. DeMartino also accused Huertas of tryingto cover up the attack. He said neither Huertas and the third SEAL,Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe, of Yorktown, Va., didanything to stop it.
But DeMartino also admitted he initially lied when first askedabout the bloodstain on Abed's clothes, and his account of thedetails of the incident were disputed by the sworn testimony of atleast four other witnesses.
Against the backdrop of the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandaland the 2007 Nisoor Square shootings of 17 civilians in Baghdad,allegedly by Blackwater guards, the SEALs verdict marks anotherblow to America's image in Iraq.
"These trials are just propaganda for their justice anddemocracy," sneered Abdul-Rahman Najim al-Mashhadani, head of theIraqi human rights group Hammurabi.
Huertas did not take the stand to defend himself, but isexpected to testify in Keefe's trial, which begins Friday at themilitary base in Baghdad. Lombardi said Huertas is expected tooffer few, if any, details of the case, and will testify that hewas cleared of the same charge that Keefe also is accused of:dereliction of duty. Many of the same witnesses in Huertas' trialalso will testify in Keefe's, although a new jury will beseated.
Only McCabe, of Perrysburg, Ohio, was charged with assaultingAbed. His trial is set for May 3 in Norfolk, Va.
Associated Press Writers Hamid Ahmed and David Risingcontributed to this report.
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Drivers traveling between Hatteras Island and the mainland were forced to use an emergency ferry Wednesday, following the sudden closure of the Bonner Bridge Tuesday.
A company has been hired to complete the repairs to the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks, but how long those repairs will take remains unknown.
State officials say construction on a new Bonner Bridge has been delayed for years because of a legal battle with an environmental group.