BAGHDAD -- A U.S. Navy SEAL was cleared Thursday of charges he covered up the alleged beating of an Iraqi prisoner suspected of masterminding the grisly 2004 killings of four American security contractors.
The Blackwater guards' burned bodies were dragged through the streets, and two were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates River in the former insurgent hotbed of Fallujah, in what became a turning point in the Iraq war.
On Thursday, a six-man Navy jury found Petty Officer 1st Class Julio Huertas not guilty of dereliction of duty and impeding the investigation. The jury heard too many differences between the testimony of a sailor who claimed he witnessed the Sept. 1 assault at a U.S. base outside Fallujah and statements from a half-dozen others who denied his account.
Smiling and composed as he left the courthouse at the U.S. military's Camp Victory on Baghdad's western outskirts, Huertas said he felt vindicated.
"It's a big weight off my shoulders," said Huertas, 29, of Blue Island, Ill. "Compared to all the physical activity we go through, this has been mentally more challenging."
Huertas said he would rejoin the SEALs, the Navy's elite special forces, as soon as possible. His was the first trial of three SEALs accused in the assault of Ahmed Hashim Abed and its alleged cover up.
The case has drawn fire from at least 20 members of Congress and other Americans who see it as coddling terrorists to overcompensate for the notorious Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Thursday's verdict was met by anger and sad shrugs from Iraqis who said they no longer expect to see U.S. troops held accountable for atrocities or other abuses.
"They would release him even if he had killed an Iraqi and not just beaten him," said Ahmed Abdul Aziz Khudaeir, teacher in Fallujah.
Abed, who is a suspected terrorist, claimed in his testimony that he had nothing to do with the Blackwater attack At least two of the Blackwater guards were former SEALs, giving the sailors what prosecutor Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jason Grover called a motive for beating Abed.
In his closing argument, Grover pleaded with the jury to hold Huertas responsible as an example of "why we're better than the terrorists."
Huertas' lawyers, however, cast strong doubt that Abed was ever beaten in the first place. Photographs of Abed's face and body taken in the days immediately after the alleged attack show a visible cut inside his lip but no obvious signs of bruising or injuries anywhere else.
"There was no abuse," Monica Lombardi, Huertas' civilian attorney, told the jury. She said Abed could have bit his lip on purpose to cast blame on U.S. troops, calling it "classic terrorist training."
Dressed in a bright yellow jumpsuit and with his hands bound in front of him, Abed testified he was knocked to the floor and stood up by a U.S. guard, only to fall again after being punched in the stomach. He said he bled heavily over his white dishdasha, the traditional long garment worn by some Arabs.
That at least partially matched the account given by Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin DeMartino, who told the jury that he saw one of the accused SEALs, Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew McCabe, punch Abed in the stomach. DeMartino also accused Huertas of trying to cover up the attack. He said neither Huertas and the third SEAL, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Keefe, of Yorktown, Va., did anything to stop it.
But DeMartino also admitted he initially lied when first asked about the bloodstain on Abed's clothes, and his account of the details of the incident were disputed by the sworn testimony of at least four other witnesses.
Against the backdrop of the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal and the 2007 Nisoor Square shootings of 17 civilians in Baghdad, allegedly by Blackwater guards, the SEALs verdict marks another blow to America's image in Iraq.
"These trials are just propaganda for their justice and democracy," sneered Abdul-Rahman Najim al-Mashhadani, head of the Iraqi human rights group Hammurabi.
Huertas did not take the stand to defend himself, but is expected to testify in Keefe's trial, which begins Friday at the military base in Baghdad. Lombardi said Huertas is expected to offer few, if any, details of the case, and will testify that he was cleared of the same charge that Keefe also is accused of: dereliction of duty. Many of the same witnesses in Huertas' trial also will testify in Keefe's, although a new jury will be seated.
Only McCabe, of Perrysburg, Ohio, was charged with assaulting Abed, and his is the only trial to be held at the Virginia Naval base where the three SEALs are stationed. His trial is scheduled to begin May 3.
Associated Press Writers Hamid Ahmed and David Rising contributed to this report.