U.S. soldiers to face rape charges in court

BAGHDAD – A U.S. Army investigator has recommended that four American soldiers accused of raping a 14-year-old girl and of killing her and her family face a court-martial, a lawyer in the case confirmed yesterday.

Col. Dwight Warren, the investigator in the case, said in a report issued Sunday that “reasonable grounds exist to believe that each of the accused committed the offense for which he is charged.”

The report was given to lawyers in the case and obtained by The Associated Press from David Sheldon, the lawyer of one of the defendants.

The four soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division are charged with raping Abeer Qassim al-Janabi in her family’s home in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, then killing her along with her parents and her younger sister. Military prosecutors say the four set the teenager’s body on fire to hide their crime.

The soldiers accused of rape and murder – Spc. James P. Barker, Sgt. Paul E. Cortez, Pfc. Jesse V. Spielman and Pfc. Bryan L. Howard – could potentially face the death penalty. Another soldier, Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe, is accused of failing to report the attack but is not alleged to have been a direct participant.

Another soldier who was said to have allegedly planned the attack, Pfc. Steven D. Green, was discharged from the army because of a “personality disorder” before the allegations became known. He was arrested in June shortly after the allegations became known. He has pleaded not guilty to rape and murder charges and is being held in a civilian court in the United States.

Sheldon, who is counsel to Barker, said the soldiers were abandoned by a military command that did not give them the support that they needed either in the field or in the courtroom.

“I’m not surprised given the events in this case. It was apparent that neither Spc. Barker nor any of the other soldiers were going to get a fair hearing,” Sheldon told the AP. He added that he would be filing an objection within the five days allowed after he received the recommendation from the investigator.

Mahmoudiya is an extremely violent region in Iraq in an area known as the “triangle of death” for the numerous attacks by insurgents, and lawyers are expected to use extreme combat stress as a defense.

Testimony in early August during the soldiers’ Article 32 hearing – similar to a civilian grand jury hearing – painted a picture of a unit almost constantly on edge from repeated attacks and demoralized by the loss of fellow soldiers.

“Each one of these soldiers had experienced extreme combat distress,” Sheldon said.

In his report, the army investigator did not make a recommendation on whether the accused should face the death penalty, but he outlined aggravating factors that could be considered.

“I believe evidence exists that the actions of the accused could have created a grave risk of substantial damage to the mission of the United States, and that substantial damage to the national security might have resulted,” Warren wrote.

The allegations of rape and murder have bolstered Iraqi accusations of misconduct by soldiers, including illegal killings, beatings and inhuman treatment. The allegations have increased the mistrust and resentment among Iraqis of the American military and increased calls for withdrawal.