Private England called to explain her 'bit of fun' on the Abu Ghraib night shift

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Seeking to discredit claims that Private Lynndie England was following orders, prosecutors yesterday portrayed her as an out-of-control soldier who was photographed mocking Iraqi prisoners "just for fun".

Seeking to discredit claims that Private Lynndie England was following orders, prosecutors yesterday portrayed her as an out-of-control soldier who was photographed mocking Iraqi prisoners "just for fun".

On the first day of a hearing to determine whether Pte England, 21, should be court martialed for her actions at the Abu Ghraib prison, witnesses testified that the naked detainees shown with her were common criminals of little value to interrogators.

An Army investigator, Paul Arthur, testified that when he interviewed Pte England about the photos three months before they became public, she told him they were taken while "they were joking around during the night shift".

Mr Arthur said he believed the reservists from the 372nd Military Police Company, based in Cresaptown, Maryland, were responding to the stress of being in a war zone.

"It was just for fun, kind of venting their frustration," Mr Arthur testified. But when asked if that assessment applied to Pte England, Mr Arthur replied: "She never mentioned that she was frustrated. She said it was more for fun."

Defense lawyers have said that the army reservist from Fort Ashby, West Virginia, was following orders from higher-ups and that the US government has made her a scapegoat for an incident that stirred outrage in the Arab world.

Pte England is charged with 13 counts of abusing detainees and six counts stemming from possession of sexually explicit photos, which the Army has said do not depict Iraqis. The maximum possible sentence is 38 years in prison.

She is one of seven reservists from the 372nd Military Police Company who have been charged in the scandal. One, Spc Jeremy C Sivits, has already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to a year in prison. Five others are in Iraq awaiting trial.

The general who headed the US military prison at Abu Ghraib, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, said in an interview broadcast yesterday that there had been a conspiracy to prevent her knowing about the prisoner abuse.

Brig Gen Karpinski, who has denied knowing about any mistreatment of prisoners until photographs surfaced at the end of April, told BBC radio she had information suggesting officials took action to keep her in the dark.

"From what I understand ... it was people that had full knowledge of what was going on out at Abu Ghraib who knew that they had to keep Janis Karpinski from discovering any of those activities," she said.

Asked whether she thought the conspiracy reached up to the Pentagon or the White House, she said: "The indication is that it may have."

In Pte England's hearing, a second army investigator, Warren Worth, testified that she never indicated she was an unwilling participant in the photos, and that she even took some of the pictures herself. He added that her job was in another part of the prison complex.

Mr Worth also described other photos that show Pte England engaging in "oral sodomy" with a soldier, posing nude on a beach or pool, and waving her breasts in the face of a sleeping soldier. When asked whether Pte England ever expressed unease at doing these things, Mr Worth responded: "At no time did she say that."

Pte England, who visibly pregnant beneath her uniform, sat impassively throughout. One of the prison photos shows Pte England smiling, cigarette in her mouth, as she points at the genitals of a naked, hooded Iraqi. Another photo shows her holding a leash that encircles the neck of a naked Iraqi man.

Mr Arthur said he was alerted to problems at the prison on the night of 13 January, when Spc Joseph Darby of the 372nd gave him a computer disk containing the photos and told him that prisoners were being abused. He said Pte England claimed to have gotten permission from military intelligence to "rough up" a couple of rape suspects, but later noted she was the only member of the 372nd to tell him of the orders.

The hearing adjourned for the day in the afternoon and will continue today.

Spc Charles A Graner Jr, 35, another soldier in Pte England's unit, has also been charged with abuses and was involved in a romantic relationship with Pte England; he faces adultery charges for allegedly having sex with Pte England last October. Pte England's lawyers have said she is pregnant with Graner's child.