WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the end of the last court-martial linked to prisoner abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib jail, the Pentagon says it is confident justice has been done but rights groups see a failure to hold leaders accountable.
Only one U.S. officer, Army Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, faced court-martial over the scandal. Jordan was acquitted on Tuesday of responsibility for abuse at the jail west of Baghdad.
Jordan, who argued that he played no part in the abuse and that the military was trying to make him a scapegoat, was convicted only of disobeying an order not to discuss the investigation into the case. He was sentenced to a reprimand.
Images of the abuse, including naked detainees stacked in a pyramid and others cowering before snarling dogs, became public in April 2004 and badly damaged the reputation of the U.S. military as it waged war in Iraq.
Eleven lower-ranking soldiers have been convicted in military courts in connection with the physical abuse and sexual humiliation of detainees at Abu Ghraib.
Two officers were disciplined by the Army but neither faced criminal charges or dismissal.
Rights activists say that record is at odds with public pledges from top U.S. officials.
“Watch how America will do the right thing,” then-Secretary of State Colin Powell declared in May 2004.
Powell said President George W. Bush would be “determined to find out where responsibility and accountability lie.”
Powell himself seems satisfied that justice has been done. “People were charged and brought before tribunals. The system worked,” he said in a comment relayed to Reuters by his office.
But John Sifton, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “There’s been huge gaps in the accountability process.”
Sifton said the military’s court-martial system was ill-suited to dealing with the scandal, in part because procedures required approval from senior officers. He said the military should have appointed an independent prosecutor.
“Since the military justice system has proven so poor at dealing with all this, our recommendation now is that an independent prosecutor in the Department of Justice be appointed,” he added.
The Pentagon defended the court-martial system and its role in investigating the abuses at Abu Ghraib.
“People that have acted in ways that are inconsistent with our policies, our procedures, our values will be held to account and the way that you do that is through the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
“We should be confident ... given the rigors of the process, that it makes determinations that are appropriate,” he said.
But Allen Keller, an associate professor of medicine at New York University who is an expert on torture and has studied the Abu Ghraib scandal, said it was clear responsibility for the abuse went well beyond low-ranking soldiers.
“The notion that what happened at Abu Ghraib is limited to a few bad apples on the night shift is absurd,” he said.
“Such lack of accountability sends a chilling message to the rest of the world.”