In a makeshift courtroom in Baghdad, the United States attempted to answer yesterday the scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
The accused was Specialist Jeremy Sivits, the man who took the now infamous photographs of naked Iraqi prisoners piled in a pyramid with American soldiers grinning behind, and of Private Lynndie England pointing at a naked Iraqi man's genitals.
He pleaded guilty, and broke down in tears before the court. He was handed down the maximum penalty available to the court: one year in prison, demoted to private, and discharged for bad conduct.
But as the sentence was handed down, the US was facing accusations that it is trying to make Specialist Sivits and six other accused into scapegoats to cover up a systematic policy of abusing Iraqi prisoners.
The US military says it is holding courts martial for Specialist Sivits and three of the other accused in Iraq in an effort to defuse anger here and prove to Iraqis, and Arabs, that the US is tracking down and punishing those responsible for the abuses. It was supposed to be, in the words of General Mark Kimmitt, the US military spokesman, an opportunity for Iraqis to see "American democracy in action". The entire process is sticking to the official script: the mistreatment was the work of the seven accused alone - a few "bad apples".
That is in spite of the findings of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose representatives visited Abu Ghraib to check on the treatment of prisoners before the scandal emerged. "We were dealing here with a much broader pattern and system, as opposed to individual acts," the ICRC's director of operations, Pierre Krahenbuhl, said.
Amnesty International said its interviews with former detainees also showed the abuses "are not isolated cases".
Yesterday's hearing was open to Arab and international journalists, but security considerations meant that it was closed to the Iraqi public.
It was held in the Saddam-era convention centre, behind high concrete blast walls and three American checkpoints, one them guarded by a tank. That meant that to the average Iraqi, the proceedings seemed as remote as the rest of the occupation authority's dealings, which take place behind similar walls.
The hearing took less than four hours, after Specialist Sivits's guilty plea. His lawyer said he had made a "pre-trial agreement" with the prosecution, which is believed to be a plea bargain under which he will give evidence against the other accused at future courts martial. Although the sentence was the maximum that could be handed down, that was because Specialist Sivits was allowed to be tried by a special court martial instead of a general court martial, which can hand down custodial sentences up to 15 years.
Specialist Sivits gave detailed evidence yesterday about some of the abuses which implicated several of the other accused. On 8 November, Specialist Sivits testified that he was outside Abu Ghraib when Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick asked him to accompany him to the prison. He took one detainee with him; when he arrived, there were seven others already there.
Corporal Charles Graner, alleged to have been the ringleader, was shouting. "I saw one of the detainees lying on the floor," said Specialist Sivits. "They were laying there on the floor, sandbags over their heads." Sergeant Javal Davis and Private Lynndie England were "stamping on their toes and hands", he said. "Graner punched the detainee in the head or temple area. I said: 'I think you might have knocked him out.' Graner complained that he had injured his hand." The prisoners were ordered to strip naked and form the now notorious pyramid of bodies.
Several of the accused have said they were ordered to abuse the prisoners by interrogators. Specialist Sivits testified that one of the six, whom he did not identify, told him at the time that they had been "told to keep doing what they were doing by military intelligence", but said he did not believe the soldier.
"I'd like to apologise to the Iraqi people and those detainees," Specialist Sivits said, breaking down in tears. "I should have protected those detainees, not taken the photos ... You can't let people abuse people like they have done." The US was facing demands last night that it investigate how far up the chain of command responsibility for abuses went. Writing in The New Yorker magazine, the journalist Seymour Hersh claimed the policy was personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary.
Cpl Graner, Staff Sgt Frederick and Sgt Davis were arraigned in a separate hearing yesterday. All three deferred their pleas for legal reasons, saying they had not been given access to prosecution witnesses.