By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
BAGHDAD, Oct. 28 -- In the first case of its kind, an Iraqi judge Tuesday convicted an Iraqi man of abducting, torturing and killing two American soldiers in the summer of 2006.
Ibrahim Karim Muhammed Salih al-Qaraghuli was found guilty and sentenced to death after expert testimony that his fingerprints matched photos of bloody prints found on the front panel of the pickup truck used to drag the soldiers, Pfc. Kristian Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker. Citing lack of evidence, Judge Munther Raouf Haadi acquitted Qaraghuli's two co-defendants.
The proceeding cast a spotlight on the Iraqi court system, which has come under scrutiny in recent weeks as Iraqi and American officials have argued over whether Iraq should have the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers under certain circumstances as part of a yet-to-be-signed agreement regarding the presence of American troops in Iraq after 2008. The case decided Tuesday was the first in which an Iraqi investigative judge filed charges in the slaying of U.S. soldiers.
Insurgents abducted Menchaca, 23, of Houston and Tucker, 25, of Madras, Ore., on June 16, 2006, while the two soldiers were manning a checkpoint in Yusufiyah, a village south of Baghdad, in a then-volatile area known as the Triangle of Death. Their bodies were tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged through town. One of the soldiers was beheaded.
Col. Rafael Lara Jr., the chief of a U.S. military task force advising Iraqi court officials, said he was disappointed by the acquittals but satisfied by the way the case was handled.
"I'm very pleased to see the Iraqi judiciary exercise discretion and the rules of procedure," he said. "Iraqi courts have taken a good step today."
In Iraq's legal system, investigative judges interview witnesses, collect evidence and issue arrest warrants. A three-judge panel acts as the American equivalent of a presiding judge and jury.
The prosecutor assists with the investigation but plays a largely passive role during the proceeding. Defense lawyers are appointed to represent defendants.
The three defendants were escorted into the courtroom by Iraqi police officers and led into a wooden cage, where they stood facing the bench during the proceeding.
Haadi read summaries of statements from a half-dozen witnesses. One had died since he was interviewed; the rest ignored summons to appear in court.
The statements included somewhat contradictory accounts about the defendants and the abductions. The men who dragged the soldiers through the streets wore hoods, according to the witness statements. Nevertheless, some witnesses said they were able to identify some of the defendants.
Defense lawyers questioned the trustworthiness of accounts from witnesses who were unwilling to show up in court. One argued that the fingerprint evidence was suspect because American investigators handled the forensics in the case and may have digitally produced the match.
The three defendants said they were innocent. A Sunni insurgent group linked to the group al-Qaeda in Iraq asserted responsibility for the slayings and said they were retaliation for the rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl by an American soldier.
U.S. officials said they found DNA evidence on a head scarf recovered from the crime scene that tied a second defendant to the crime. But the DNA evidence was not addressed during the proceeding because Iraqi judicial officials didn't want to use an American DNA expert and were unable to find an Iraqi expert, U.S. advisers said.
After issuing his verdict, Haadi ordered the other two defendants, Whalid Khalid Daydan Ibrahim al-Kartani and Kazim Fadhil Jasim Harbi al-Zowbai, released immediately.
Tucker and Menchaca were with the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), based at Fort Campbell, Ky. Spec. David J. Babineau, 25, a third soldier who was with them when they were abducted, was fatally shot on the spot. U.S. military officials found the two soldiers' bodies three days later. They were laden with explosives.