Prison abuse revealed in 2003, agency says

Red Cross, British official say U.S. authorities were slow to respond

May 08, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday that it had reported to U.S. authorities for more than a year about ill-treatment of Iraqi prisoners that in some cases was "tantamount to torture."

Separately, a prominent British member of Parliament said she informed coalition officials in Baghdad in September about allegations that a 73-year-old Iraqi woman had been mistreated and humiliated during her 6-week detention by the U.S. military.

The Iraqi woman claimed she had been called "a donkey" and forced to crawl on all fours across her cell with a man on her back, according to the lawmaker, Ann Clwyd, who is Prime Minister Tony Blair's representative for human rights in Iraq.

The statements by the Red Cross and Clwyd raised new questions about when U.S. and coalition authorities learned of the prison abuses and how quick they were to investigate them.

Rumsfeld's testimony

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week that serious allegations of abuse of detainees first came to light on Jan. 13, prompting an investigation and a public announcement. He told the Senate yesterday that it was during this period that the charges were discussed with President Bush.

But the ICRC's director of operations, at a briefing in Geneva, said, "Our findings were discussed at different moments between March and November 2003, either in direct face-to-face conversations or in written interventions."

The ICRC periodically visited all detention sites in Iraq and inspected the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad every five or six weeks, according to Amanda Williamson, an agency spokeswoman in Washington.

After each visit, she said, the agency's usual practice is to speak privately with prison officials and then file written reports with military and civilian officials at the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is headed by L. Paul Bremer III.

In February, the ICRC handed U.S. officials a 24-page report summarizing information provided to the United States in a series of previous reports since soon after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The Wall Street Journal, which first disclosed the report, said it described prisoners kept naked in total darkness in empty cells at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison; male prisoners forced to wear women's underwear; and coalition forces firing on unarmed prisoners from watchtowers, sometimes fatally.

Pattern reported

ICRC director of operations Pierre Kraehenbuehl told reporters in Geneva, "We were dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system."

He also said, "The elements we found were tantamount to torture. There were clearly incidents of degrading and inhuman treatment."

Kraehenbuel told reporters that authorities had taken action on some of the issues raised by the ICRC but not on others. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage appeared to agree with this assessment yesterday in an interview with Arab reporters:

`Administration knew'

"On the question of abuse, the Administration knew, and the ICRC has made it very clear that they told us of various abuses for some time," Armitage said, adding that "we had taken, as they've said, some actions on some of the things that they considered to be abuses."

The individual case described by Ann Clwyd took months to get action, according to the lawmaker.

It was only last week, after she described the woman's case during a meeting March 24 with President Bush's deputy national security adviser at the White House, that coalition authorities in Baghdad responded, sending a staffer to visit the woman, she said.

Clwyd, a member of Blair's Labor Party, became well known before the invasion of Iraq as the head of Indict, an organization that for years collected detailed witness accounts of human rights abuses committed by Saddam Hussein's regime.

Since the Iraq invasion, which she supported, Clwyd has visited Iraq five times as Blair's special representative for human rights in the country. In telephone interviews this week, she said she has devoted particular attention to the treatment of prisoners.

"I've raised general concerns about detainees from June onwards," she said by telephone yesterday from her home in Wales.

She said she repeatedly inquired about the case of the 73-year-old detainee after it was brought to her attention by the woman's son and daughter-in-law, who live in London. At the request of the woman's family, Clwyd has refused to identify her.

Clwyd said the woman had been sought for interrogation because she was reputedly a close associate of Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali," who was accused of ordering the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988. Her family denies any such association, Clwyd said.

Accompanied by a researcher for Indict, who took notes, Clwyd visited the woman at her home outside Baghdad last September.

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