BAGHDAD (AP) - A U.S. military judge on Friday cleared a Navy SEAL of anywrongdoing in the alleged beating of an Iraqi prisoner suspected ofmasterminding the grisly 2004 killings of four Americancontractors.
The Blackwater contractors' burned bodies were dragged throughthe streets and two were hanged from a bridge over the Euphratesriver in the former insurgent hotbed of Fallujah in an attack thatshocked Americans and galvanized U.S. support for the war.
After a daylong trial and fewer than two hours considering theevidence, Navy Judge Cmdr. Tierny Carlos found Petty Officer 2ndClass Jonathan Keefe of Yorktown, Virginia, not guilty ofdereliction of duty, a spokesman said.
It was the second verdict in as many days to throw out chargesagainst a SEAL accused in the abuse case. Three Virginia Beach,Va.-based SEALS, the Navy's elite special forces unit, face chargesin a case that has drawn fire from at least 20 members of Congressand other Americans who it see it as coddling terrorists toovercompensate for the notorious Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
The trial against the third and final SEAL to be charged isslated for May 3 at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.
Keefe was not charged with assaulting terror suspect AhmedHashim Abed, but of failing to protect him in the hours after hewas captured and brought to a U.S. military base on Sept. 1, 2009.Abed had been the focus of an Iraq-wide manhunt for his suspectedrole in the Blackwater guards' killings.
U.S. Joint Forces Special Operations spokesman Lt. Col. Terry L.Conder said Keefe showed no visible reaction when Carlos read hisverdict shortly before 9 p.m. at a courtroom at the U.S. military'sCamp Victory on Baghdad's western outskirts.
The verdict comes a day after another SEAL, Petty Officer 1stClass Julio Huertas, of Blue Island, Illinois, was found not guiltyof similar charges.
Huertas testified briefly during Keefe's case -- mostly tounderscore the point that he, too, had been cleared, Condersaid.
The evidence largely pit the testimony of Abed and a junior Navywhistleblower, Petty Officer 3rd class Kevin DeMartino, againstthat of several SEALs and other Navy sailors who denied that Abedhad been abused.
Conder said that DeMartino testified for several hours Friday torecount anew his memory of seeing Abed punched in the stomach,causing blood to gush from his mouth and stain his white dishdasha,the traditional long garment worn by some Arabs.
DeMartino identified Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe asthe SEAL who hit Abed as Keefe and Huertas stood watching nearby.DeMartino said he initially lied about witnessing the assault butdays later alerted the SEALs commander of it, sparking theinvestigation.
Defense lawyers, however, seized on inconsistencies inDeMartino's testimony and questioned the credibility of Abed, asuspected terrorist, to raise doubt about their versions of events.They also relied on evidence recycled from Huertas' trial inclaiming that Abed could have bit his lip to make himself bleed onhis clothing
Compared to McCabe, Keefe and Huertas faced relatively minorcharges as neither were accused of assaulting Abed. Keefe andHuertas chose to have their trials held in Iraq, so they could faceAbed in court. McCabe waived that legal right.
The verdicts have played into Iraqis' fears that courts willnever hold U.S. troops accountable for atrocities or other abuses.
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