BAGHDAD (AP) — A U.S. military judge on Friday cleared a Navy SEAL of any wrongdoing in the alleged beating of an Iraqi prisoner suspected of masterminding the grisly 2004 killings of four American contractors.
The Blackwater contractors’ burned bodies were dragged through the streets and two were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates river in the former insurgent hotbed of Fallujah in an attack that shocked Americans and galvanized U.S. support for the war.
After a daylong trial and fewer than two hours considering the evidence, Navy Judge Cmdr. Tierny Carlos found Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe of Yorktown, Virginia, not guilty of dereliction of duty, a spokesman said.
It was the second verdict in as many days to throw out charges against a SEAL accused in the abuse case. Three SEALS, the Navy’s elite special forces unit, face charges in a case that has drawn fire from at least 20 members of Congress and other Americans who it see it as coddling terrorists to overcompensate for the notorious Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
The trial against the third and final SEAL to be charged is slated for May 3 in Norfolk, Virginia.
Keefe was not charged with assaulting terror suspect Ahmed Hashim Abed, but of failing to protect him in the hours after he was 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 suspected role 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 his verdict shortly before 9 p.m. at a courtroom at the U.S. military’s Camp Victory on Baghdad’s western outskirts.
The verdict comes a day after another SEAL, Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas, of Blue Island, Illinois, was found not guilty of similar charges.
Huertas testified briefly during Keefe’s case — mostly to underscore the point that he, too, had been cleared, Conder said.
The evidence largely pit the testimony of Abed and a junior Navy whistleblower, Petty Officer 3rd class Kevin DeMartino, against that of several SEALs and other Navy sailors who denied that Abed had been abused.
Conder said that DeMartino testified for several hours Friday to recount 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 as the SEAL who hit Abed as Keefe and Huertas stood watching nearby. DeMartino said he initially lied about witnessing the assault but days later alerted the SEALs commander of it, sparking the investigation.
Defense lawyers, however, seized on inconsistencies in DeMartino’s testimony and questioned the credibility of Abed, a suspected terrorist, to raise doubt about their versions of events. They also relied on evidence recycled from Huertas’ trial in claiming that Abed could have bit his lip to make himself bleed on his clothing
Compared to McCabe, Keefe and Huertas faced relatively minor charges as neither were accused of assaulting Abed. Keefe and Huertas chose to have their trials held in Iraq, so they could face Abed in court. McCabe waived that legal right.
The verdicts have played into Iraqis’ fears that courts will never hold U.S. troops accountable for atrocities or other abuses.