Marines abused detainees in Iraq, documents show

Penalties mostly lighter than in Abu Ghraib case

December 15, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Months before Army Reserve soldiers snapped pictures of naked Iraqi detainees forced into humiliating positions at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, a group of U.S. Marines stationed in Karbala staged their own photo session, with one holding a 9mm pistol to the back of a bound detainee's head while another took pictures, newly released records show.

Three Marines faced charges in that little-publicized incident from May 2003, as well as for photographing the detainee draped in an American flag and for pouring a glass of water on his head. But their punishment was far lighter than what the soldiers in the more high-profile Abu Ghraib scandal have faced - a pattern that Navy records show was repeated in a number of little-noticed abuse cases.

Three Marines accused of staging a "mock execution" in June 2003 by ordering four Iraqi juveniles to kneel and then discharging a pistol in the air, as well as spraying suspected Iraqi looters with a fire extinguisher, received sentences this year ranging from 14 days' confinement to 30 days at hard labor.

A Marine accused of causing second-degree burns on the hands of an Iraqi detainee at Al Mumudiyah in August 2003 - by throwing a lighted match as the detainee used an alcohol-based hand sanitizer - was found guilty of assault and sentenced to 90 days' confinement.

Three Marines accused of shocking an Iraqi detainee with wires from an electric transformer during an incident in early April received sentences ranging from 60 days' confinement to a year in prison.

The punishments handed down to the Marines typically included a reduction in rank and, in some instances, a bad conduct discharge. But in each instance, they generally avoided the harsh publicity and punishment faced by the seven low-ranking soldiers from the Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company accused in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Three soldiers charged in the Abu Ghraib scandal have pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from a reduction in rank to eight years in prison. Four others could get sentences of 10 years to 38 years if convicted.

A staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government to obtain the Navy records and thousands of other documents related to detainee abuses in Iraq and elsewhere, said the documents show the problem reached well beyond the accused reservists and others should be equally accountable.

"Contrary to the U.S. government's assertion that the detainee abuses in Iraq and elsewhere were an aberration and isolated, the documents show that is not true," attorney Amrit Singh said in an interview.

A spokesman for Marine Corps Headquarters said the documents showed a pattern of thorough investigations by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and, when warranted, prosecution and punishment.

"Each of these acts referred to by the ACLU resulted in courts-martial convictions," media officer Maj. Nat Fahy said in a statement. "This clearly demonstrates our commitment to thoroughly investigate all allegations of detainee abuse and hold those people accountable. Any behavior that does not constitute humane treatment of detainees is simply not tolerated."

The documents released yesterday showed some instances in which allegations of abuse by Marines proved untrue. In one case, investigators found unreliable a Marine's claim that he had stabbed wounded and dead Iraqi soldiers after he falsely claimed to have been wounded in combat and received a hometown parade in his honor.

In another case, a Marine bragged at a party about executing three Iraqi prisoners. But he later admitted that he made the story up while drunk to try to impress friends.

"Earlier that night, all of us were standing around talking about our deployment in Iraq, and everybody seemed to have a good story except me," the Marine, whose name was not released, told investigators in a statement. "I didn't have a story, so I started thinking up a story so I could feel like I would fit in with everyone else."

Other documents, however, suggested routine "rough handling" of detainees under the control of U.S. Marines. A Navy corpsman who served with a Marine unit in Iraq told investigators that detainees who were classified as enemy prisoners of war would be taken to an empty swimming pool, cuffed at their hands and legs and hooded with burlap bags.

The detainees would "remain in the kneeling position for no longer than 24 hours while ... awaiting interrogation," the unidentified Navy corpsman told investigators.

None of the Navy documents released yesterday detailed the investigation and courts-martial in the June 2003 death of Iraqi detainee Nagem Sadoon Hatab. Eight Marines faced charges in Hatab's death at a detention facility in southern Iraq.

Last month the Marines drew attention for another investigation into the videotaped shooting death of an apparently unarmed and wounded Iraqi at a mosque in Fallujah.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita told reporters yesterday that the Army and Marines have held about three dozen courts-martial connected to detainee abuses and would continue to make public documents related to the investigations.

"We're going to be as transparent as we can," he said.

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