Deaths of detainees held by U.S. tend to occur under the radar

Cases draw less focus than Abu Ghraib scandal

December 19, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

One detainee had already died when the directive came from a legal adviser at a U.S.-run detention facility in Afghanistan to the commander of the military police unit responsible for guarding prisoners: Tell your soldiers to stop "hanging and hitting" the detainees.

That advice went unheeded, according to a previously undisclosed report by Army investigators. And within a 10-day period in early December 2002, two Afghan prisoners were dead after being suspended by their arms from a ceiling and allegedly beaten by U.S. soldiers so severely that in each case, investigators wrote, if the prisoner had survived, "both legs would have had to be amputated."

Medical examiners classified the deaths as homicides, among the first of about a dozen suspicious detainee deaths investigated in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two years.

In one case, an Iraqi man was allegedly forced by his U.S. captors to jump into the Tigris River, where he drowned. In another, an autopsy found a broken bone in the neck of a detainee dragged by his throat from a holding cell in southern Iraq and found dead hours later.

The little-noticed detainee deaths drew increased scrutiny this year after the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal ignited international outrage. But the death investigations have drawn less attention, and lesser punishments, than the photographed humiliation and mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib - even though at least one case involved some of the same figures.

The 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, which was based at the Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan when the two detainees died in December 2002, went on to serve at Abu Ghraib late last year. Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, a commander with the 519th who served at both sites, was named as a subject in the death investigation led by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (also known as the CID), according to two CID reports prepared over the summer and obtained by The Sun.

According to the reports, Wood told legal advisers at Bagram that detainees were shackled, like the two prisoners who later died, in so-called "safety-positions" to protect interrogators. In fact, the reports said, "safety positions were used to [elicit] information due to the degree of discomfort they caused the detainee."

In a letter last week to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the group Human Rights Watch argued that swift action in cases in which prisoners died might have prevented the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib.

"Had the investigation and prosecution of abusive interrogators in Afghanistan in 2002 proceeded in a timely manner, it is possible that the abusive techniques might have been abandoned, and that many of the abuses seen in Iraq could have been avoided," said Brad Adams, the organization's executive director.

Defense officials rejected that claim and said they have moved quickly to investigate cases that can be extraordinarily difficult to solve, in part because of basic problems of geography and language barriers.

"We do need to be quick, but these are complicated cases, many times," Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said.

In the Abu Ghraib scandal, seven Army Reservists from the Maryland-based 372nd Military Police Company have been charged with mistreating and assaulting detainees.

Three of the reservists have pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from a reduction in rank to eight years in prison for the most senior of the accused, Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick. The four other accused soldiers are expected to stand trial in closely watched courts-martial proceedings early next year at Fort Hood, Texas.

None of the seven has been implicated in any deaths, though some of the accused soldiers infamously posed with the body of a detainee who died during a CIA interrogation. Their commander, Capt. Donald Reese, has also testified about a cover-up plan to get the body of the detainee, identified as Manadel al-Jamadi, out of the prison complex after Col. Thomas M. Pappas, commander of all military intelligence at Abu Ghraib, exclaimed: "I'm not going down for this alone."

No one has been directly charged in al-Jamadi's death Nov. 4, 2003.

Six members of an elite Navy SEAL team face charges of assault and maltreatment in connection with al-Jamadi's death and the death of another detainee who perished in U.S. custody. One of the accused, a Navy SEAL lieutenant, also posed for a photo with the body. But in contrast with the attention surrounding the reservists from Maryland's 372nd unit, authorities have refused to identify the accused SEAL team members. Also, the photo has not been released.

Other detainee death cases have been similarly low-profile:

In the two deaths at the detention facility at the Bagram airfield in Afghanistan, the lengthy investigation identified 28 people as culpable. But only a single Army Reserve soldier, from the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 377th Military Police Company, is awaiting trial. A Pentagon official said others could face charges next month.

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