A U.S. military court judge ruled that Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich will serve no time in jail for a 2005 massacre that killed 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, enraging local Iraqis who condemned the verdict as an “assault on the blood of Iraqis.”
|U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich leaves the courtroom after his sentencing at Camp Pendleton on January 24, 2012. REUTERS|
Iraq vowed to take legal action in response to the soft verdict, which has spurned outrage in the country that endured nine years of U.S. occupation.
“We think that the punishment is not suitable with the crime that was committed,” said Ali Mussawi, spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“We will keep pursuing the legal channels to fight for the rights of our citizens who were victims of indiscriminate shooting, without having committed any sins,” he said.
Wuterich, who led an eight-man squad whose other members have all been exonerated, was sentenced to 90 days confinement, but he will not serve them under a deal with prosecutors.
The judge also said Wuterich will not suffer a pay cut, citing his financial circumstances as a single father, despite having participated in the slaughter of Iraqi women and children.
The 31-year-old admitted to one count of negligent dereliction of duty Monday, but denied he was a “cold-blooded baby-killer.”
Charges of manslaughter over the killings were dropped as part of a plea deal, and the only punishment Wuterich will receive for the war crime is a reduction of his ranking to private (E-1).
The victims included 10 women or children killed at point-blank range. Six people were killed in one house, most shot in the head, including women and children huddled in a bedroom.
In Haditha itself, residents of those killed reacted with shock and disgust.
“This is an assault on the blood of Iraqis,” lamented Khalid Salman, a Haditha city councilman and lawyer for the victims.
“That is only a punishment for … small crimes. But killing 24 innocent people, and only receiving a punishment of three months? This is an assault on humanity.”
Salman vowed to continue pursuing the case, while a doctor at the town’s hospital insisted that residents would never forget the killings.
Salman insisted the sentence did not “mean the end” of his legal efforts.
“There are orphans, widows, and old people who are still suffering and hurting from that terrible massacre. … If we find no way, we will go to the international courts,” he said.
Some residents, including one woman who lost relatives at the time and still lives on the street where much of the violence took place, were so upset by the judgment that they declined to speak to reporters.
“People in Haditha are depressed, especially the families of the victims, the families of the innocent who were murdered for no reason,” said Assem Omar al-Hadithi, a journalist with Al-Anbar satellite television who grew up in the town.
In a prepared statement, Wuterich insisted, in a resonant, calm voice after witness testimony, that he was only doing his duty.
“The truth is, I don’t believe anyone in my squad… behaved in any way that was dishonorable or contrary to the highest ideals that we all live by as marines.”
“But even with the best intentions, sometimes combat actions can cause tragic results,” he said
All U.S. marines involved in the massacre will now continue freely with their lives, while the relatives of the innocents massacred struggle on with the pain. That the killers have not been served justice adds salt to the wound.
“We don’t want to talk about forgiveness and kindness – all we want is justice,” al-Hadithi said.
Iraq had pushed for U.S. troops to be subject to Iraqi justice before the U.S. pullout in December.
The U.S. and NATO rejected Iraqi requests to have their troops subject to domestic Iraqi law, where they would have been liable for any crimes committed against Iraqi civilians.
The U.S. is also not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), thus its armed forces cannot be held accountable for war crimes outside of U.S. jurisdiction.
The Obama administration has, however, voiced its support for the ICC on cases such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while shielding its own soldiers from international law.
— TAAN, Al-Akhbar, MEO