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Category: International, Violence against Women

Notes from the Court Martial of Sgt. Paul Cortez

| February 22, 2007

“She screamed and cried and tried to keep her legs together.” That is how Sgt. Paul Cortez described the reason he was fully aware that his premeditated rape of 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Rasheed Al-Janabi was not consensual but criminal.

Cortez and the others who are being prosecuted chose the Al-Janabi house because they had been to the home and knew “there was only one male and three females” and it would be “an easy target.” Yet, he said, they “didn’t know her name” until their crime was reported and the investigation began.

According to testimony at his court martial, Cortez, the highest ranking soldier among the four who allegedly planned the assault on Abeer and her family, had demanded the “privilege” of raping her first, according to testimony at the court martial taking place in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.

Pvt. Stephen Green herded Abeer’s parents and five-year-old sister into the next room, and Cortez threw Abeer onto the living room floor, lifted her skirt and pulled her stockings down, forced her legs apart and raped her as she screamed and struggled. His friend, Pvt. James Barker, held Abeer’s arms down with his arms and knees. While he was raping Abeer, four or five shots rang out in the room next door, but Cortez didn’t flinch or question the gunfire. When the sergeant was “done,” Barker took his place, raping Abeer while Cortez held her down as she screamed, cried and struggled.

Green came into the room, saying, “I killed them all, they’re all dead.” Green then raped Abeer, with Cortez still holding the girl down, urging Green to “hurry up.”

Choking up at times and wiping his eyes, Cortez paused frequently in his testimony recounting the events of March 12, 2006. He buried his hands in his head as he described how Green stood up and shot Abeer in the head three times with an AK-47.

After the rape and murders, Cortez, Green and Barker, along with Pvt. Jesse Spielman, set Abeer's body on fire and tried to burn the house down. They disposed of their clothes and the AK-47. They met up with Pvt. Bryan L. Howard, who reportedly acted as lookout and who has also been charged. They then carried on as usual, just another afternoon in Mahmoudiya, Iraq.

Sgt. Cortez pled guilty to all charges against him, including premeditated rape and felony murder. However, he disputed the charge of premeditated murder. Barker was brought in from Leavenworth Penitentiary to testify against Cortez, but the evidence ultimately came down to Barker’s word against Cortez’s. The other participants who witnessed his role are still facing their own criminal prosecutions and would not testify and risk self-incrimination. The judge yesterday ruled against charging Cortez with premeditated murder.

In the sentencing phase of the court martial, the defense is expected to present testimony that Cortez was acting under war-related stress when he committed rape and murder. Cortez does not face the death penalty. As William Cassara, Cortez’s civilian attorney told WMC, his client “is a good kid who was in a horrific situation.”

It’s an argument that peace activists and feminist organizers, especially in the Ft. Campbell and Nashville areas, are sensitive to. “It can be pretty scary talking about the impact of the war in a military town—people think you’re not supporting the troops,” said Debbie Boen, the founder of Clarksville Freethinkers for Peace and Civil Liberties. After the 2004 elections, she organized weekly peace vigils in the town’s Patriot Square, posting the latest numbers of U.S. deaths—and Iraqi deaths.

Polly Coe, a Quaker and another member of the Freethinkers, is a stress therapist whose clients include Iraqi war veterans. In her experience, the immorality of war can give rise to war atrocities like rape and murder. “The whole war is dehumanizing,” said Coe. Our soldiers don’t believe they’re fighting to defend our country. They’re not fighting to protect freedom. The only thing that holds them together while they’re in Iraq is to defend each other—anyone who doesn’t defend the group, no matter what it does, becomes the enemy.” Coe said that the men she sees are so angry and demoralized that domestic violence and sex addiction among returning veterans is a serious problem.

Feminist activists and other progressives in the Nashville area who were contacted by WMC say they have not heard much about the courts martial in the Abeer Al-Janabi case. Such groups as the Nashville Peace and Justice Center, Code Pink, and the Peace Coalition have been mobilizing to bring the troops home from Iraq. (For more information, visit the website www.Clarksvilleonline.com.)

The atrocities committed against Abeer and her family may never have come to light had it not been for another soldier in their company who overcame that pressure to maintain the code of silence. He suspected the involvement of his fellow soldiers and reported it. Otherwise Abeer would have been another Iraqi teenage girl who was targeted, raped and murdered. But now these soldiers know her name: Abeer—it means the fragrance of flowers.

Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (2000), is a Women’s Media Center board member. This update continues the Women’s Media Center series and organizing campaign focusing on crimes against Abeer Qassim Rasheed Al-Janabi and their implications for the military and U.S. foreign policy.

CORRECTION: This article first reported in error that Sgt. Anthony W. Yribe had acted as a lookout for Cortez and the others.  According to Yribe's testimony in the court martial after this story was filed, he had observed Cortez's subsequent effort to cover-up evidence at the Al-Janabi house. Yribe was initially charged with dereliction of duty for failing to report the offenses but has been granted immunity in exchange for his testimony and does not face court martial.

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