Trent Thomas

13.04.2015 ( Last modified: 13.06.2016 )
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facts

Trent D. Thomas was born in 1982. He grew up in St Louis, Illinois in the United States. As a teenager, he lived with his younger sister and their mother in Madison, Illinois in an abandoned house. After about five or six months of living with no utilities, he moved in with a family friend and his sister moved in with a relative of that friend. Thomas worked at a fast food restaurant to help out his mother, who had two jobs. Thomas grew up with a strong Christian faith and his friends nicknamed him “Rev.” He graduated from Venice High School in 2001. After his sister won a scholarship to Messenger Bible College in Missouri, Thomas spent a semester and a half at the same college, mainly doing religious studies. Having always been interested in becoming a Marine, he left college to enlist and completed boot camp and infantry school at Camp Pendleton. He served three tours in Iraq, experiencing in the second the battle for Fallujah in November 2004. Thomas was hit by shrapnel and received a Purple Heart. Thomas has a wife called Erica and they have two young children. In 2008 Thomas was still on unpaid leave from the US Army. His current status is not known.

Thomas was on his third tour in Iraq and was among a group of seven US Marines and a Navy Corpsman (Corporal Marshall L. Magincalda, Lance Corporal Robert B. Pennington, Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Melson J. Bacos, Sergeant Lawrence G. Hutchins III, Lance Corporal Jerry E. Shumate Jr., Private First Class John J. Jodka and Lance Corporal Tyler A. Jackson) who were alleged to have taken Hashim Ibrahim Awad from his house in Hamdania and shot him in the night of 26 April 2006. Awad’s family members say that at around 02:00, US Marines were going from house to house in the small village of Hamdania (also spelt “Hamdaniya”), west of Baghdad near Abu Ghraib, pounding on people’s doors. Whilst at the house of the family of Awad’s cousin, the Marines took an AK47 rifle and a shovel. The US Marines were later seen taking Awad from his house by the arms. Gunshots were heard about half an hour later. Awad had eleven children and was a disabled police officer and was known as “Hashim the Lame” because of the metal bar that was surgically implanted in his leg after being injured in the war with Iran in the 1980s. In the morning the family was informed by local police that Awad had been shot to death and left in a hole by the side of the road. The AK47 and shovel had been left beside him, presumably to look as though he had been digging a hole to plant a bomb.

According to Awad’s family, Awad had been approached by US military personnel who wanted him to become an informant, which he had refused to do. At trial, Thomas testified that on 26 April 2006 the group had decided to kill Saleh Gowad, a known insurgent. When they failed to find Gowad, they intentionally abducted another man, Awad.

The US Marines were initially detained at Camp Fallujah in Iraq and then Camp Pendleton, San Diego County, California. Thomas was put in shackles and chains and taken to the Camp Pendleton brig on 24 May 2006.

legal procedure

Thomas was put in shackles and chains and taken to the Camp Pendleton brig on 24 May 2006.

On 3 August 2006, Thomas was formally charged with conspiracy, first degree premeditated murder, larceny, kidnapping and lying under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCJM):

– Charge I: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 81 (Conspiracy) Specification: Conspired to commit Larceny, Housebreaking, False Official Statements, Kidnapping, Murder, Obstruction of Justice;
– Charge II: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 107 (False Official Statement) Specification: False Official Statement;
– Charge III: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 118 (Murder) Specification: Did with premeditation, murder Hashim Ibrahim Awad;
– Charge IV: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 121 (Larceny) Specification: Stole a shovel and an AK-47 assault rifle;
– Charge V: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 128 (Assault) Specification: Unlawfully force Hashim Ibrahim Awad to the ground and bind his hands and feet;
– Charge VI: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 130 (Housebreaking) Specification: Unlawfully enter a dwelling, the property of Hashim Ibrahim Awad, with the intent to commit a criminal offense, to wit: kidnapping, therein;
– Charge VII: Violation of the UCMJ, Article 134 (General Article) Specification 1: Did willfully and wrongfully seize and hold Hashim Ibrahim Awad against his will (Kidnapping) Specification 2: Did wrongfully endeavor to impede an investigation (Obstruction of Justice).

Under a plea bargain, Thomas pleaded guilty in exchange for 12 years in prison. However, Thomas stunned the military court by subsequently withdrawing his guilty plea, resulting in a full trial. Thomas was defended by six counsel – three uniformed and three civilian – one of whom was Victor Kelley.

Thomas’ counsel argued that their client was only following orders from his squad leader and asked that he be credited for the 519 days he had already served in the brig and be returned to active duty. They did not argue that the killing did not occur the way described nor did they argue that Thomas didn’t participate. Thomas told the court that he wanted to return to military service: “I’ve never been good at anything until I came to the Marine Corps. It’s pretty obvious Michael Jordan was meant to play basketball. Tiger Woods was meant to play golf. The Marine Corps, it’s me.” A military jury of three officers and six enlisted Marines deliberated his sentence for less than an hour before returning its decision. Thomas was found guilty of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit larceny, housebreaking, kidnapping, false official statements and murder. Thomas was found not guilty of murder, larceny, housebreaking and making a false official statement.

On 18 July 2007 Thomas was sentenced to a bad-conduct discharge and a reduction in rank to private, as well as time served (14 months). The sentence was criticised in the press – Tom Umberg, a former military prosecutor, called Thomas’ punishment “pretty outrageous” and suggested the jurors might have been swayed by their own combat experiences. “I have never heard of a court-martial that convicted someone of conspiracy to murder and kidnapping and not adjudicate some kind of (prison) sentence,” Umberg said. “Obviously there was some sympathy, maybe even empathy, because all of the panel members had served in Iraq.”

Speaking outside the court, Thomas said “I believe we did what we needed to do to save Marines’ lives. I think anybody who understands what war is or what combat is understands.”

context

The Iraqi special tribunal is a hybrid tribunal created on the 10th December 2003 in Bagdad by the coalition provisional authorities which were government established after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The mission of this tribunal is to judge acts of genocide and crimes against humanity as well as war crimes committed between 17 July 1968 and the 1st May 2003, the period covering the political regime of the Baas party. It is therefore aimed specifically at crimes committed by Iraqis in the aforementioned period notably those committed during the war against Iran (1980 – 1988) and the invasion of Kuwait (1990-1991).

The Iraqi special tribunal was created in the context of the Iraq war (also known as the Gulf war) that began on the 20th March 2003 by operation “Iraqi Freedom.” The operation involved the invasion of Iraq by the coalition. It was conducted by the United States, the United Kingdom and the international coalition in order to overthrow the Baas party of Saddam Hussain. The Baas party originating in Damascus in 1947 came to power in Iraq in 1963 but it was only due to a coup of 17th July 1968 that it definitively seized power until 2003. When Saddam Hussein came to power on the 16th July 1979 the party changed significantly and militarised itself. By organising itself into various cells throughout the country the party became strongly resistant in the face of hardship. The United States have been the leaders of the war in Iraq and many reasons for the war have been officially cited by the government of G.W Bush; the fight against terrorism, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was supposed to hold; the arrest of Saddam Hussein, to mention only the main ones. After a rapid defeat of the Iraqi army at the end of April 2003 and the capture of Saddam Hussein, the coalition and Iraq tried to establish a transitional democratic government representing all the Iraqi communities. The coalition also aimed to try members of the Baas party that had been captured.

In close collaboration with the American department of justice to which he reports directly, Paul Bremer, (Iraqi second civil administrator) established by decree the statute of the Special Iraqi tribunal on the 10th December 2003. The United States have awarded more than $100 million to ensure the “construction of the courtroom, conduct exhumations, study the documents seized, the preparation of evidence and the training of the tribunal’s members”.

The statute of the tribunal is a mix of two existing forms of procedure, inspired strongly by American adversarial law as well as Egyptian law which is essentially inquisitorial. If the statute is deemed to be insufficient it explicitly states that the Iraqi penal code of 1971 is to be used. The statute of the tribunal introduced alongside the Iraqi penal legislation a number of crimes taken from statutes of other international criminal courts in order to incriminate the former dictator Saddam Hussein and other members of the regime, namely genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Furthermore, each time that one of these crimes does not have a corresponding match in the Iraqi penal order, the statute authorises the tribunal judges themselves to determine the sentence taking into account the gravity of the crime, the individual characteristics of the accused and international jurisprudence. With regards to its composition, the Iraqi special tribunal consists of 20 attorneys contracted for 3 years, 3 chambers composed of 9 permanent judges appointed for 5 years, a court of appeal composing of 9 judges and 20 judges appointed for 3 years. It is formed solely of Iraqi judges of which a certain number have denounced from the beginning the pressure exerted by the provisional government. Some judges have been the victims of threats, of removal and even of assassination.

Whilst being discredited from the beginning as rendering winners justice, the Iraqi special tribunal had the means to quickly realise its central objective, that of judging the ex head of state Saddam Hussein as well as the main representatives of the Baas regime. In addition to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, the tribunal also had jurisdiction to try cases relating to the manipulation of judges, squandering national resources and the use of the Iraqi army against another Arab state. All of these charges were on the indictment for the first trial.

The first trial which took place in front of the tribunal was the trial of Saddam Hussein judged alongside seven of his lieutenants on the 19th October 2003. There were doubts concerning the fairness of the trial in regard to the conditions under which the trial began. Several Human Rights organisations one being Human Rights Watch have condemned technical and financial limits placed on the defence which risked hindering their work in comparison with the support received by the prosecution. Another issue which was the subject of controversy was the re-establishment of the death penalty on the 30th June 2004, which was abolished in 2003 by Paul Bremer. Despite the position today in international law being clearly abolitionist, several death sentences were passed early on culminating with the hanging of Saddam Hussein in December 2006 which was voluntarily made public. After said hanging the tribunal has continued and continues today to prosecute the former members of the Baas government.

At present, the Iraqi special tribunal is still evolving in the context of a political crises and repeated attacks. The execution on 25 January 2010 of “Chemical Ali”, Saddam Hussein’s cousin seems to have revived the movements against religious minorities present in Iraq.