By KEVIN FREKING
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Lawmakers are seeking a reprieve for three Navy SEALs facing court-martial because one allegedly punched a suspect after arresting him for an ambush killing of U.S. contractors in Iraq.
Rather than accept a reprimand, the sailors chose to fight the charges in a military court. Their appeal greatly raises the stakes because a guilty finding could bring stiff punishment.
A letter that Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, circulated in the House said prosecuting the three SEALs "seems to us to be an overreaction by the command."
One of the SEALs is accused of punching Ahmed Hashim Abed in the face after his September arrest; the others are accused of falsifying statements on the episode.
Hunter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the men could face loss of rank, up to one year of confinement, a bad conduct discharge and forfeiture of a portion of their pay each month for up to a year.
About 20 lawmakers signed the letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"The Navy SEALs could have been slapped on the wrist for this - unfairly then, too," Hunter said. "But they said, 'We want to let the facts be known." Prosecuting them is "baloney."
The SEALs involved are Special Warfare Operators 2nd Class Matthew McCabe and Jonathan Keefe, and Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Julio Huertas.
According to Special Operations Command Central, McCabe is charged with assault, dereliction of duty and making a false official statement; Keefe is charged with dereliction of duty and making a false official statement; and Huertas is charged with dereliction of duty, making a false official statement and impeding an official investigation.
The command said in a press release Friday night the alleged assault happened after "the prisoner had been apprehended and while he was in their custody at the base." The command stressed that the charges were merely accusations and the sailors were presumed innocent unless proven guilty at court martial.
The plight of the three men seems to be gaining attention on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., sent a similar letter to Gates, asking the secretary to give the case his personal attention. He said it appeared to him that highly skilled personnel have been removed from the war effort "due to a fat lip and some slanderous allegations by one of the most-wanted individuals in Iraq."
The letter by House members said prosecution of the sailors would hurt others in the military who risk their lives in dangerous, ambiguous situations.
"It appears from all accounts that these SEALs are exceptional sailors, demonstrated by the fact that each had recently been advanced in rank," the letter said. "They captured a terrorist who had planned an attack that not only killed Americans but also maimed and mutilated their bodies."
Abed had evaded capture since the ambush that killed four Blackwater USA contractors in March 2004. The burned bodies of two of the victims in the attack were hung on a bridge over the Euphrates River.