WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on Wednesday revoked awards given to several military prosecutors in the court-martial of a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murdering an Iraqi prisoner but convicted of unlawfully posing for photos with his dead body.
The move coincided with tweets from President Donald Trump repeating his support for Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher and directing Spencer to rescind awards that were “ridiculously given” to prosecutors who, according to Trump, “lost the case” against Gallagher.
It marked the third time the president has publicly commented directly on the court-martial of the combat veteran, who was accused of committing various war crimes while deployed in Iraq in 2017.
A total of 10 military awards - seven Navy Achievement Medals and three letters of commendation - recently given to military prosecutors for their work on the Gallagher case were revoked, Navy officials told Reuters. Those officials said they did not know if Spencer acted on Trump’s orders or took action before the president’s tweets.
A military jury in San Diego acquitted Gallagher, a decorated platoon leader, of charges that he murdered a captured Islamic State fighter by stabbing the wounded prisoner in the neck.
Gallagher also was found not guilty of attempted murder charges stemming from the wounding of two unarmed civilians - a school girl and an elderly man - who were shot from a sniper’s perch.
But the panel convicted Gallagher of illegally posing for pictures with the detainee’s corpse.
Much of the testimony against him came from fellow sailors who were granted immunity from prosecution. One was a medic who surprised prosecutors during the trial by testifying it was he, not Gallagher, who caused the detainee’s death by plugging his breathing tube in what the medic described as a mercy killing.
In his tweet storm on Wednesday, Trump criticized the Navy prosecutors “for giving immunity in a totally incompetent fashion.” Trump also took credit for having released Gallagher “from solitary confinement so he could fight his case properly.”
“I am very happy for Eddie Gallagher and his family!” Trump wrote.
Gallagher, 40, was spared any prison time beyond the nearly seven months he had spent in pretrial custody. But the jury sentenced him to a demotion in rank and pay for the crime of posing in pictures with a human casualty. His lawyers said they planned to appeal.
Gallagher has maintained he was wrongly accused by disgruntled subordinates who fabricated allegations against him over grievances with his leadership style and tactics.
Trump first intervened in Gallagher’s case in March, when he ordered the Navy SEAL moved from a military brig to less restrictive confinement at a Navy base.
The court-martial judge later released Gallagher altogether and removed the senior Navy prosecutor originally assigned to the case, citing pretrial prosecution misconduct alleged by defence lawyers. A Navy spokesman said neither the senior prosecutor who was removed nor the prosecutor who replaced him were among those who received the awards in question.
Trump weighed in again on Twitter just after the jury verdict to congratulate Gallagher.
In May, Trump said publicly that he was considering pardons for a number of U.S. military personnel accused of war crimes, and Gallagher’s case was widely believed to be one of those under review.
Reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant, Bill Berkrot and Sonya Hepinstall