Navy SEAL Prisoner Abuse Trial Under Way

The trial of a U.S. Navy SEAL charged with abusing a prisoner who died in CIA custody is under way. Lt. Andrew Ledford is accused of punching a detainee, dereliction of duty and making false statements to investigators. But one of the government's key witnesses may have helped the defense more than the prosecution.

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The government has begun presenting witnesses in the trial of a US Navy SEAL. Lieutenant Andrew Ledford of the elite special forces unit is accused of abusing a prisoners. He's accused of punching a detainee. He is also accused of dereliction of duty for making false statements and allowing his subordinates to abuse prisoners. Those are the charges, but as NPR's John McChesney reports, a key prosecution witness may have actually helped the defense.

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

The principal charges against Lieutenant Ledford involve the treatment of an Iraqi prisoner named Manadel al-Jamadi. Al-Jamadi was suspected of blowing up a Red Cross facility in October of 2003 and Ledford's SEAL platoon captured him in the middle of the night on November 3rd. Al-Jamadi was later turned over to the CIA at Abu Ghraib and died during interrogation. Photographs of his iced-down corpse became famous in the abuse scandal at the prison. Ledford is not charged with al-Jamadi's death. A member of Ledford's platoon, who was drummed out of the SEALS for theft, later charged that Ledford's platoon had severely beaten al-Jamadi before delivering him to the CIA.

As one of its principal witnesses, the government called Dan Cerrillo, one of Ledford's men who personally captured al-Jamadi in his kitchen. Cerrillo described a desperate struggle after the 6'3" al-Jamadi opened his door. He and the Iraqi slugged it out, crushing a kitchen table in their fight. Cerrillo said he would have shot al-Jamadi if he could have reached his weapon. Finally, he subdued the man by pulling the kitchen stove down on top of him. Al-Jamadi was cuffed, hooded and taken off to a forward operating base. The government charges that Ledford's men beat al-Jamadi there for roughly 10 minutes and that the lieutenant punched the prisoner after Cerrillo invited him to, quote, "give this turd a knock." Cerrillo denied that he said that and said that Ledford didn't strike the prisoner and did not witness the beating.

Cerrillo testified that out of a year of pre-deployment briefings, only an hour have been devoted to detainee treatment. He says he remembers being told that the high-value targets they were capturing didn't fall under the Geneva Convention because they were unlawful combatants. He said he roughed up another detainee under the supervision of a CIA interrogator. He also said he didn't think this whole thing, meaning the prosecution of the SEAL team, was right.

Another government witness, Petty Officer Nicholas Wilson(ph), testified that he had kicked and punched al-Jamadi and that other members of the platoon had used their rifle muzzles to strike the prisoner as he lay in the bed of a Humvee. He said that he saw Lieutenant Ledford during the last few minutes of the beating but couldn't say whether the lieutenant saw what was going on and that he did not see the lieutenant hit al-Jamadi.

At one point, the courtroom was closed to spectators as classified testimony was taken from a person assumed to be a CIA agent. Later, the media was allowed to come back to a courtroom cut in half by 12-foot blue curtains behind which the agent testified anonymously. He said he'd only witnessed one SEAL beating, on a different night, that Ledford was not present and that he never saw another such incident in his year in Iraq. He also testified that Ledford and his men had probably saved his life when they came under fire on another mission.

But the defense still has some difficult obstacles to overcome. In an interview with naval criminal investigators following al-Jamadi's death, Ledford said that he had punched al-Jamadi in the arm and Ledford was photographed with his grinning men as he held up a can of Red Bull energy drink at the rear of the Humvee where al-Jamadi is seen sitting on the floor with a hood over his head.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Diego.

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