"It was just for fun"

Private Lynndie England is said to have shown no alarm when confronted with pictures of her gloating over naked and cowering Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

By Suzanne Goldenberg
Published August 4, 2004 2:01PM (EDT)

Private Lynndie England, the woman who has become the emblem of America's shame over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, showed no alarm when confronted with pictures of her gloating over naked and cowering Iraqi prisoners, a military hearing was told yesterday.

Instead, her first reaction to news that she was under investigation for abuse was: "It was just for fun." That utter lack of comprehension returned to haunt her yesterday as the hearing began to determine whether she will face disciplinary proceedings or the full weight of a court martial.

As the first witnesses appeared in a drab courtroom on this military base in North Carolina, the prevailing view of the US military -- that Pte England and the handful of other lowly reservists charged in the abuse were rogue soldiers -- began to emerge more fully.

"They didn't think it was that serious. They were just joking around and having some fun during the night shift," Chief Warrant Officer Paul Arthur told the court. He added later: "From the get-go, it was jokes and frustration."

From her seat at the front of the court, Pte England showed little expression -- aside from the occasional nervous giggle.

Small in stature, and with short coppery hair, she looked even younger than her 21 years. Her pregnancy - now in its seventh month -- was concealed beneath the loose tunic of her camouflage uniform.

Pte England is the only soldier accused in the abuse scandal to face legal proceedings in the US. She was returned to Fort Bragg last spring because of her pregnancy, and has spent her time doing administrative work at the base.

Aside from her legal team, she had only one ally in the court yesterday, her mother, Terrie. They are in for some lurid proceedings over the next few days as the court details Pte England's alleged role in the abuse, and her relationship with the alleged ringleader, Corporal Charles Graner, who is the father of her child.

If Pte England is convicted on all 19 charges, she could face 38 years in the brig. Some 25 witnesses are to appear including Specialist Joseph Darby, the soldier who first came forward about the abuse, and Spc Jeremy Sivitz, who was granted relative leniency for cooperating with the investigation.

Cpl Graner, and the other soldiers facing separate proceedings in Baghdad, will not appear, although other soldiers are expected to give testimony over the phone from Iraq.

Although the focus of the proceedings yesterday was Pte England, it was impossible to escape a greater impression of a dysfunctional administration at Abu Ghraib.

Chief Warrant Officer Warren Worth from the military CID revealed yesterday that dogs were occasionally used during interrogations at Abu Ghraib -- although expressly forbidden under military protocol. He also described a prison administration thrown together from different army units, and who did not often work well together.

Much of the prosecution's evidence is from photographs, with more than 280 images of abuse of detainees, and of Pte England engaged in sex acts with Cpl Graner. The images first came to the attention of the authorities last January.

CWO Arthur, a member of the military CID, was at Abu Ghraib when a soldier in Pte England's military police unit slipped a packet under his door containing CDs of scores of horrific images. Naked prisoners were stacked in human pyramids, others were made to simulate sex acts. One man trembled in front of two dogs, and Pte England tugged at the end of a dog leash coiled around the neck of an Iraqi detainee lying on the floor of his cell.

Within a few hours of receiving the CD, CWO Arthur had woken Pte England from her sleep, and asked her about the images. She appeared calm, he told the court yesterday. Although she stuck to her line that the pictures were taken for sport -- and to vent anger about an earlier prison riot -- another officer testifying yesterday admitted that Pte England believed that her actions were authorised.

"She believed that military intelligence said they could rough up the detainees," said CWO Warren Worth. Pte England's lawyers argue that the soldier, a junior clerk on a gross salary of just $1,585.50 a month (around #850), was merely following orders from military intelligence officers to soften up prisoners for interrogation.

CWO Arthur said Pte England had never worked on the cell block, but went after hours to visit her lover. "I don't think she received orders from military intelligence," he said.

But it later emerged yesterday that lowly reservists serving with the military police unit at Abu Ghraib had been called on to perform coercive interrogation techniques.

Suzanne Goldenberg

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