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Exclusive: A military dog handler convicted for his role in the prisoner abuse scandal has been ordered back to help train the country's police
By ADAM ZAGORIN
As if the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal weren't bad enough for America's image in the Middle East, now it may appear to much of the world that one of the men implicated in the scandal is returning to the scene of the crime.
The U.S. military tells TIME that one of the soldiers convicted for his role in Abu Ghraib, having served his sentence, has just been sent back to serve in Iraq.
Sgt. Santos Cardona, 32, a military policeman from Fullerton, Calif., served in 2003 and 2004 at Abu Ghraib as a military dog handler. After pictures of Cardona using the animal to threaten Iraqis were made public, he was convicted in May of dereliction of duty and aggravated assault, the equivalent of a felony in the U.S. civilian justice system. The prosecution demanded prison time, but a military judge instead imposed a fine and reduction in rank. Though Cardona was not put behind bars, he was also required to serve 90 days of hard labor at Ft. Bragg, N.C.
Before Cardona boarded a plane at Pope Air Force Base this week for the long flight to his unit's Kuwait staging area, he told close friends and family that he dreaded returning to Iraq. One family member described him as "depressed," though stoic about his fate. According to a close friend with whom Cardona spoke just before his departure, the soldier is fearful that he remains a marked man, forever linked to the horrors of Abu Ghraib — he appears in at least one al-Qaeda propaganda video depicting the abuse — and that he and comrades serving with him in Iraq could become targets for terrorists. To make matters worse, his 23rd MP Company has been selected to train Iraqi police, which have been the target of frequent assassination attempts and, according to US intelligence are heavily infiltrated by insurgents. Attempts to reach Cardona directly were unsuccessful.
But Cardona�s physical well-being is not the only issue of concern connected to his transfer. According to former senior U.S. military officers and others interviewed by TIME, sending a convicted abuser back to Iraq to train local police sends the wrong signal at a time when the U.S. is trying to bolster the beleagured government in Baghdad, where the horrors of Abu Ghraib are far from forgotten. "If news of this deployment is accurate, it represents appallingly bad judgment," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded a division in the first Gulf War. "The symbolic message perceived in Iraq will likely be that the U.S. is simply insensitive to the abuse of their prisoners."
Retired Major General John Batiste was likewise surprised at the decision to send a soldier convicted of abuse at Abu Ghraib back to Iraq. His only comment: "You just have to wonder how far up the chain of command this decision was made."
Army public affairs specialist Major James Crabtree, who is assigned to the 18th Airborne Corps at Ft. Bragg, which has responsibility for Cardona's unit, said that Cardona, is a military policeman whose " unit happens to be deployed to Iraq, so he went with them." Crabtree said the Army commander overseeing the transfer of Cardona and other members of his unit said "there were no issues associated with [Cardona's new] deployment." He added that although a military judge ordered a reduction in rank for Cardona following his court martial, Cardona has since regained his previous rank of Sergeant.
The military jury acquitted Cardona of seven charges, including alleged attempts to harass a second prisoner with his dog. Cardona's lawyers argued that their client's actions at Abu Ghraib were condoned, if not approved in each case, by officers in charge of the prison, as well as senior officials in the Army command.
Shortly before he left for Iraq, Cardona told a close friend and family members that he was returning against his will. "He loves the Army and has deep respect for the chain of command," said a family member, who asked not to be identified by name, but who described Cardona as feeling duty-bound to accept his Iraqi deployment. The friend said that Cardona had described trying to attach another soldier�s name tags to his uniform in hopes of concealing his identity from Iraqis, but was told by an officer to desist. According to this friend, Cardona said he had told at least one of his superiors that he feared for his safety in Iraq, especially because of his presence in the al-Qaeda video, but was told by an officer, �We need bodies [in Iraq]" and that he shouldn't worry about it.
Cardona's fears may be well founded. The Abu Ghraib scandal is still a fresh subject in Iraq and elsewhere in the Muslim world. The episode is still used in Jihadi propaganda, and is featured on Islamist websites. As for Cardona, his name can be referenced almost instantly on the Internet, along with news of his conviction and photos of him holding his large tan Belgian Malinois dog, as an Iraqi prisoner cowers against a concrete wall at Abu Ghraib prison. Dogs, which are considered unclean by many Muslims, have been used in U.S. detention facilities in both Iraq and Guantanamo to intimidate prisoners.
When the recently slain terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi executed American Nicholas Berg, he went out of his way to specify that the gruesome murder was an act of revenge for crimes committed by the U.S. military against Muslims at the prison. Both Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, use events at the prison to explain their calls for Holy War against the U.S. "Al-Qaeda and other Jihadis still cite Abu Ghraib to demonstrate what they call U.S. crimes against Muslims," notes Rita Katz, director and co-founder of the SITE Institute, who has made a study of terrorist videos and other propaganda. "Some of the videos actually feature the dogs used at Abu Ghraib." After his conviction, Cardona's dog was removed from his care and control. But if the Army has its way, the former Abu Ghraib MP may soon be training Iraqi police in how to maintain security and proper conduct amid the country's chaos.