The revelations of torture and abuse by US soldiers at Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, which rocked the US army and sparked worldwide anger and condemnation earlier this year, are being revisited at a US military base in Mannheim, Germany, this week.
The two-day pre-trial hearings which began on Monday are meant to determine whether and under what circumstances a main trial can be held.
Specialist Charles Graner, who is 35-years-old and suspected of having played a prominent role in the infamous torture photographs, faces the most serious charges.
Graner, who posed smiling in several snaps behind a pyramid of naked prison inmates, is accused of photographing a detainee being dragged on a leash by Private First Class Lynndie England. Graner is also said to have forced prisoners to strip naked and masturbate in front of each other, and one to simulate oral sex on another, before taking pictures.
He is also charged with committing adultery, an offence against military discipline.
Potentially incriminating images
Graner's lawyers had tried to prevent the use of the photographs during the hearings, arguing that Graner had not been fully in control of his mental facilities as he was awoken in the middle of the night in January and had sleepily agreed to having his room searched. Earlier, a military investigator referred to CDs with hundreds of photographs showing detainees being abused during the search of Graner's room.
However, Judge James Pohl dismissed a motion to strike the potentially incriminating photographs from his court martial.
Guy Womack, one of Graner's lawyers, said he was unimpressed with the judge's decision and said the defense would continue to stress the fact that US soldiers in Abu Ghraib were simply following orders that they believed to be legal to soften up detainees.
Graner, who appeared relatively indifferent during the hearings , said he had been under enormous stress and had only slept three to four hours a night when he was interrogated about the scandal in January 2004 and his room had been searched.
Dressed in army fatigues, Graner spoke about the long hours in Iraq, sometimes 17 hours a day transferring detainees and the pressure of being under fire. "We worked every day… Several of our platoon had taken fire. Both my roommates had been injured, took blasts… It was one of the most stressful times," Graner said.
Trial in Baghdad will not be fair
Graner's lawyers are also contesting a transfer of the court martial to Baghdad, which seems likely. The hearing at the US military base in Mannheim is supposed to be an exception.
Graner's lawyers argue their client has no chance of a fair trial in Baghdad and it will be impossible to find an unbiased jury among Graner's peers given the publicity surrounding events at Abu Ghraib. "While the prejudice would be worldwide, it is extremely acute in Baghdad as the feeling would be that he has hurt the mission," Captain Jay Heath, Graner's second lawyer, told the judge.
Heath also pointed out that in the face of international condemnation of the torture photographs that went around the world, Graner's colleagues also blamed him for causing the death of some US soldiers. Graner's lawyers have also argued that it will be hard to persuade civilian witnesses to travel to Iraq. However, Judge Pohl said it was too premature to rule on the matter.
Judge blames US for moving too slowly
The judge has also condemned the delays and slow pace of US government investigations into the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, warning he might dismiss charges against at least one of the accused soldiers unless various probes were wrapped up by December.
Judge Pohl reacted angrily during Graner's hearing when he was told by prosecutors that US Army investigators had assigned just one person to go through "hundreds of thousands" of documents on the Abu Ghraib classified computer server. "And in what millennium will that be finished?" Pohl asked. "The government has to figure out what they want to do with the prosecution of this case," the judge said.
In addition to Graner, three other accused -- 29-year-old Specialist Megan Ambuhl, Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, 37 and 26-year-old Sergeant Javal Davis, all members of the 372nd Military Police Company, a reserve unit based in Cresaptown, Maryland, face hearings in Mannheim.
A total of seven US soldiers stand accused of abusing inmates at the Baghdad prison. One of them, Jeremy Sivits, pleaded guilty in May and was sentenced to one year in prison.