Civilians' role at prison studied

Iraq: U.S. authorities try to determine how to apply justice to contractors possibly involved in a military scandal.

May 22, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes and Tom Bowman | Gus G. Sentementes and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The beefy man in a khaki T-shirt and camouflage combat pants bends over the pyramid of naked Iraqi detainees and appears to grip one of the men by the neck. To his right in the graphic photo is Spc. Charles A. Graner Jr., one of the seven Western Maryland-based reservists whose conduct at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad has shocked the world.

Graner's lawyer has identified the man as Adel L. Nakhla, a 49-year-old Montgomery County resident and the only civilian contractor named as a suspect in Maj. Gen. Anthony M. Taguba's now-famous Army report on activities at the prison. Acquaintances of Nakhla who viewed the picture agreed with the identification.

An Arabic-language translator for Titan Corp. of San Diego, Nakhla was assigned to the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, whose soldiers are accused by the Maryland reservists of orchestrating the tortures and humiliations at Abu Ghraib as a way of softening up suspects for interrogation.

Nakhla invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination at a recent Army hearing that resulted in Graner's being recommended for court-martial, according to the Los Angeles Times.

As a civilian contractor, Nakhla is not subject to military justice. However, the Army could turn over its information to the U.S. Justice Department, which can charge military contractors.

Yesterday, Justice announced that it had received "a referral ... regarding a civilian contractor in Iraq, and opened an investigation into the matter." The announcement did not name the contractor.

Nakhla has retained Francis Q. Hoang, a lawyer for Williams and Connolly, a high-profile Washington, D.C., firm, said Nakhla's wife, Nadine. Hoang, a West Point graduate, did not return several phone messages left at his office.

Nakhla is mentioned in a report by the Army Criminal Investigation Command about abuses at the prison, but a military officer in Baghdad, who spoke yesterday on condition of anonymity, said the Army viewed him as a witness to abuses committed by another contractor.

Nadine Nakhla said in a brief telephone interview this week that she knew her husband had provided information as a witness in the prison abuse scandal. But she said she didn't know why he would be considered a suspect, according to the Taguba report.

"He hasn't told me anything other than what's in the news," she said.

Nakhla is from Egypt, but he is now an American citizen, his wife said. She disputed acquaintances' reports that he had returned home to the two-story townhouse on a cul-de-sac in Montgomery Village, which the couple has owned since 1989, according to state property records.

Nakhla told Army investigators that he saw two members of the 372nd Military Police Company, based near Cumberland, order several naked detainees to do "strange exercises by sliding on their stomach," and jump up and down, according to the Taguba report.

He told investigators that he heard the soldiers call the prisoners names, such as "gays," and suggest that they enjoyed making "love to guys," the report said. "Then they handcuffed their hands together and their legs with shackles and started to stack them on top of each other."

A Titan spokesman, Ralph "Wil" Williams, could not be reached for comment yesterday but said this week that Nakhla was still working for the company. Williams said company policy prevented him from divulging personal information about Nakhla, including his current location or employment history.

"We haven't been informed by the government of any allegations, but if asked, we would cooperate fully with any investigation," Williams said. "And if it is found that any of our employeees did anything unethical or illegal, we would take action."

Nakhla has worked as a translator for Titan for nearly a year, according to his wife. A spokeswoman for Humana Inc., a Louisville, Ky.-based health insurer, confirmed that Nakhla worked for the company from 1980 to 1997.

Titan, which said in its 2003 annual report that it derived 96 percent of its $2 billion in annual sales from U.S. government agencies, is among several companies that the Defense Department increasingly relies upon to provide linguists, interpreters and translators.

Soldiers from the 205th, which took command of the prison in November, said some of the contractors told them that they did not have to answer to officers at the prison, including the brigade commander, Col. Thomas M. Pappas.

During a hearing Wednesday, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee pressed top American commanders about the role of the civilian contractors.

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