HAGERSTOWN, Md. -- The court-martial of an Army dog handler charged with abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq could help clarify who approved the harsh treatment that human-rights advocates say amounted to torture.
Sergeant Michael J. Smith, 24, is accused of using his unmuzzled dog to harass, threaten, and assault detainees in late 2003 and early 2004 -- the same period in which guards at the prison subjected inmates to sexual humiliation and other abuses documented in widely seen photographs.
Military justice specialists and civil rights activists expect Smith's lawyers to argue that his actions, documented in some of those Abu Ghraib photos, were condoned by superiors in a chain of command extending to the Pentagon.
Prosecutors, however, have portrayed Smith and another dog handler, Sergeant Santos A. Cardona, as rogue military police officers who made a game of trying to frighten prisoners.
Smith's trial was set to begin today at Fort George G. Meade, midway between Baltimore and Washington. He faces up to 29 1/2 years in prison if convicted on all 14 counts. Cardona's trial is set for May 22. The nine soldiers convicted in the Abu Ghraib scandal have all been low-ranking Reservists.
''The big problem for me here is they're nailing these low-level guys," said Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. ''A vigorous defense is that this stuff was authorized from the top."
Kathleen Duignan, executive director of the National Institute of Military Justice in Alexandria, Va., said the trials could reveal how dogs were supposed to be used at Abu Ghraib and how high up the chain of command approvals went.
An Army report on the abuses at Abu Ghraib quotes Smith as saying dogs were supposed to be muzzled during interrogations, but ''from what I was told, we weren't doing interrogations. Having the dogs bark at detainees was psychologically breaking them down for their interrogation purposes."