Charges urged in deaths of detainees

Dozens of Army reservists blamed in Afghan abuses

September 16, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Army investigators have recommended that negligent homicide charges be filed against at least three Army Reserve soldiers, including a captain, from an Ohio-based Military Police unit for their alleged role in the beating deaths of two prisoners in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

The prisoners included an alleged al-Qaida operative and another man whose connections to the terrorist group were "less apparent," officials said. Both men were allegedly suspended from a ceiling and beaten on the legs by American soldiers, who used their fists and knees.

Doctors said the "blunt force injuries" to the legs caused one prisoner to develop a fatal pulmonary embolism and aggravated the other's cardiac condition so severely that he died.

The deaths, which occurred in December 2002 at the detention facility at Bagram airbase outside the capital, Kabul, were ruled homicides by U.S. military medical examiners.

"It's ugly," said one Army officer. "It's worse than what happened at Abu Ghraib."

Another officer said, "There are no pictures that we know of," a reference to the photos of naked detainees taken by U.S. soldiers at Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib and leaked to the news media, igniting the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal.

Lesser charges urged

The investigation by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command also recommended that lesser charges, including dereliction of duty, prisoner maltreatment and conspiracy, be brought against more than two dozen other soldiers from the 377th Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit based in Cincinnati, as well as the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, an active-duty unit from Fort Bragg, N.C.

One of the soldiers from the 519th facing lesser charges is also a captain, officials said. After serving at Bagram, elements of the 519th deployed to Abu Ghraib, and some of its soldiers were later implicated in the prisoner abuse scandal there.

The Pentagon officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not identify the soldiers or provide details of their alleged crimes.

Chris Grey, a spokesman for the Criminal Investigation Command, declined to answer questions, saying only: "We are nearing completion of our investigation."

Three weeks ago, charges of assault, maltreatment and dereliction of duty were preferred against one soldier in the 377th, Sgt. James P. Boland, in connection with the deaths at Bagram. Boland has been ordered to Fort Knox, Ky., to await further disposition of the case, officials said.

`I've heard nothing'

Calls to the 377th Military Police Company were referred to the 88th Regional Readiness Command in Minnesota, which oversees Army Reserve units in the region. Maj. Willie Harris, a spokesman for the command, declined to comment on the investigation.

Lt. Col. Robert Whalen, commander of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, said he has received no information about the Army's investigation.

"I'm anxiously awaiting word," he said. "I've heard nothing."

Records `lacking'

A Pentagon official said, "The MPs are largely implicated because most of the soldiers knew, hence the conspiracy. I think the MPs are going to garner the worst of this."

About 250 witnesses were interviewed during the past 19 months as part of the investigation, the official said. The probe was hampered by a lack of documents, he said, though it is unclear whether any were intentionally destroyed.

"There should have been some comprehensive records on these detainees and they're lacking," the official said.

The recommendations from Army investigators will be turned over to a general officer who will decide whether to bring charges. Pentagon officials said the Army could decide by next week which installation and commander will handle the cases, and that Fort Knox and Fort Bliss, in Texas, are possible venues.

The negligent homicide charges carry a penalty of up to three years in jail. The lesser charges could result in administrative punishment that could lead to loss of pay, rank or dismissal from the Army.

The results of the Bagram investigation raise further questions, in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, about the discipline and training of the Army's overstretched active-duty and reserve forces as well as the leadership of some officers.

Seven soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit based in Western Maryland, were charged in abuses at Abu Ghraib. One has pleaded guilty and been sentenced to a year in jail. More than two dozen active-duty Army intelligence troops have been implicated, including some from the 519th.

Deaths in Bagram

The deaths at Bagram, on Dec. 3 and Dec. 10, 2002, were ruled homicides by military medical examiners, and an investigation was launched immediately. The detainee deaths came as the U.S. military was desperately seeking intelligence information on Taliban and al- Qaida fighters, particularly in the remote and mountainous border region east and southeast of Bagram where hundreds of American soldiers were on patrol.

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