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.
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, Iraq, 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.
Abed, who is a suspected terrorist, claimed in his testimony that he had nothing to do with the 2004 attack on four Blackwater Worldwide security guards whose bodies were burned and dragged through the streets of Fallujah in what became a turning point of the Iraq war. Two of the bodies were hanged from a bridge over the Euphrates River, and Abed was the focus of an Iraq-wide manhunt by U.S. forces in the following years.
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.