FORT HOOD, Texas - Army Spc. Charles Graner Jr., the suspected ringleader of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse, took the stand for the first time Saturday and said he was ordered by interrogators to physically mistreat and sexually humiliate prisoners.
Speaking a day after his conviction for the abuse, Graner described himself as a by-the-book prison guard who was corrupted by superiors.
He said he initially resisted pressure to mistreat prisoners, but his Army superiors made it clear to him that he was expected to obey the commands of the military and civilian intelligence agents who ran his part of Abu Ghraib.
Graner said a lieutenant in his unit told him, "If (military intelligence) asks you to do this, it needs to be done. They're in charge, follow their orders."
Graner was convicted Friday of abusing Iraqi detainees in a case that sparked international outrage when photographs were released that showed reservists gleefully humiliating prisoners.
He did not testify during the 4-day trial, but took the stand Saturday as his sentencing hearing resumed.
The first soldier to be court-martialed in the scandal, Graner was convicted of all five charges and faces up to 15 years behind bars. Four other soldiers have pleaded guilty.
The verdict came after less than five hours of deliberations and a 4-day trial in which prosecutors depicted Graner as a sadistic soldier who took great pleasure in seeing detainees suffer.
"It was for sport, for laughs," prosecutor Capt. Chris Graveline told jurors in his closing argument Friday. "What we have here is plain abuse. There is no justification."
Iraqi detainee Hussein Mutar, in videotaped testimony shown as the sentencing phase began Friday evening, said he had supported the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein until he was abused.
"The Americans came to free the Iraqi people from Saddam," Mutar said. "I didn't expect this to happen. This instance changed the entire picture of the American people (for me)."
Graner was accused of stacking naked prisoners in a human pyramid and later ordering them to masturbate while other soldiers took photographs. He also allegedly punched one man in the head hard enough to knock him out, and struck an injured prisoner with a collapsible metal stick.
Irma Graner, testifying in the sentencing phase, described her son as a kind and gentle man who faithfully served his country.
"He is not the monster he's made out to be," she said quietly. "In my eyes he'll always be a hero."
The jury of four Army officers and six senior enlisted men rejected the defense argument that Graner and other guards were merely following orders from intelligence agents at Abu Ghraib when they roughed up the detainees.
Graner, a 36-year-old reservist from Uniontown, Pa., faced 10 counts under five separate charges: Assault, conspiracy, maltreatment of detainees, committing indecent acts and dereliction of duty. He was found guilty on all counts, except that one assault count was downgraded to battery.
Each count required that at least seven of the 10 jurors to agree for conviction.
Graveline recounted the abuse allegations, buttressing many with photos and video taken inside the prison in October and November 2003.
Graner's attorney, Guy Womack, contended that his client and other Abu Ghraib guards were under extreme pressure from intelligence agents to use physical violence to prepare detainees for questioning.
"It was a persistent, consistent set of orders," Womack said in his closing argument. "To soften up the detainees, to do things so we can interrogate them successfully in support of our mission. ... We had men and women being killed."
Womack described the notorious photos taken inside the prison as "gallows humor" arising from unrelenting stress felt by the Abu Ghraib guards.
He also tried to plant the seed that Graner and the other low-level guards were being used in a cover-up to protect Army officers once those photos went public.
The shocking photos of reservists abusing and sexually humiliating prisoners were first broadcast on CBS's "60 Minutes II" in April.
A month later, President Bush urged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to make sure that any guilty U.S. soldiers are punished for "shameful and appalling acts."
A senior guard at the Pennsylvania prison where Graner once worked praised his restraint in dealing with prisoners and his ability to follow orders.
"He was excellent, he was very disciplined," said Michael Zavada, the defense's first witness during the sentencing phase. "He did everything by policy."
Two other guards from the 372nd Military Police Company, a reserve unit from Cresaptown, Md., are awaiting trial, along with Pfc. Lynndie England, a clerk at Abu Ghraib who last fall gave birth to a baby believed to be fathered by Graner.