Accused US Army deserter says he saw Iraqi prisoner mistreatment
A US Army soldier who is to be tried this week on charges of deserting from the Iraq war, has claimed he saw civilians die and Iraqi prisoners mistreated as early as May 2003. "It wasn't what I had imagined as a soldier," said Florida National Guard Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia.
A US Army soldier who is to be tried this week on charges of deserting from the Iraq war, has claimed he saw civilians die and Iraqi prisoners mistreated as early as May 2003.
"It wasn't what I had imagined as a soldier, that we were going to attack a defined enemy and that soldiers were going to be killed by enemies," said Florida National Guard Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, whose court-martial begins Thursday at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
"I saw rather that a lot of innocent people died, a lot of civilians."
Mejia, 28, also claimed he saw as early as May 2003 prisoners being mistreated, an issue that has rocked the US military since recent revelations of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
"In early May we went to a prisoner detention camp" in Al Assad, he said.
"We began to see that prisoners were not allowed to sleep for several hours. Plus, there was psychological mistreatment. They were threatened with death, they screamed at them and they insulted them," Mejia said. "It was something that did not appear right."
The Internatinal Committee of the Red Cross has reported what it called systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners that amounted to torture, saying it first raised concerns with the United States more than a year ago.
Although graphic photos of the abuses only became public last month, sparking a scandal that continues to rock Washington, the Red Cross report was submitted in February and based on visits to Iraqi prisons between March 31, 2003, and October 24.
A Red Cross report specifically on abuses it witnessed at Abu Ghraib prison was delivered to US military commanders in Iraq in November, but it was not taken seriously and the allegations it made were not investigated until two months later, The Wall Street Journal said Wednesday quoting a senior US Army official.
The Red Cross report instigated attempts by the US military to curtail the international group's unannounced visits to sensitive cellblocks at Abu Ghraib where interrogations were taking place, the daily said.
Three of seven US soldiers acused of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib were to appear before courts martial in Iraq on Wednesday.
Mejia, who has dual Nicaraguan and Costa Rican nationality, said he was in Iraq from April to October 2003, when he obtained permission to return to the United States for two weeks.
Mejia, born in Nicaragua and raised in Miami, is not a US citizen but has permanent resident status.
In March, military officials said he would face a special court-martial, sparing him the risk of facing a death sentence, the harshest possible penalty for desertion.
A special court-martial means Mejia could receive no more than one year in a military prison and a bad conduct discharge if convicted, a military spokesman said.
Mejia filed for conscientious objector status with the Pentagon, his civilian lawyer, Louis Font of Brookline, Massachusetts, said in March.
He is seeking an honorable discharge and dismissal of all charges against him.
He has been in the Florida National Guard for almost six years and served in the Army for three years before that.
"I came back and I decided not to return (to Iraq) because I doubted the constitutional and international legality of the war, and because I was morally opposed to the things that I had seen over there as a soldier," Mejia said.
"I'm at peace with my decision. I would have liked to have done something more, but at least I know that what I did was right."