Within the past nine months, two respected human rights groups released reports describing what they said was the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners in Afghanistan, including instances of beatings, sleep deprivation and, in a small number of cases, killings of detainees.
The conditions that they described are roughly similar to those now under investigation at U.S.-run detention centers in Iraq. But the reports from Afghanistan received little attention when they were published.
Yesterday, the Army acknowledged that 20 investigations were under way into prisoner assaults and deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. But human rights advocates said these investigations do not fully address what the groups say are deep-seated problems in the military's policies toward detainees.
In March, Human Rights Watch released a report on "Abuses by U.S. forces in Afghanistan." Amnesty International produced a similar report in August last year.
The Human Rights Watch report describes a system of secret detentions, regular beatings, a lack of independent monitoring and a loose command system.
It also tells of an environment that did not take alleged prisoner abuse seriously - a military attitude that human rights activists say make the Abu Ghraib allegations in Iraq far from surprising.
"We wrote to the president, we wrote to Condi Rice, we wrote to Donald Rumsfeld," said Elisa Massimino, the Washington director of Human Rights First. "We said, you've got to get a handle on this. This is going to lead people to think that there aren't any rules. And here we are."
At least 1,000 Afghans and other nationals have been detained in Afghanistan detention facilities, Human Rights Watch estimated. There are some well-known, large prisons, such as the one at the Bagram air base north of Kabul, and many smaller detention facilities scattered throughout the country, the report said.
The Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports note the December 2002 deaths of two detainees at Bagram, which were later ruled homicides by U.S. officials.
At the time, U.S. officials announced that they were launching investigations into the deaths. But they have kept details or outcomes of those inquiries secret, said John Sifton, who wrote Human Rights Watch's Afghanistan report.
"Abuses came out in Afghanistan well over a year ago and nothing happened," he said. "The U.S. military stonewalled our questions on the homicide deaths at Bagram; they made promises to the United Nations and Human Rights Watch that they didn't keep about disclosing the investigation."
Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said he would not respond to individual Human Rights Watch allegations, but said the investigation into the Bagram deaths is "ongoing."
Balice said the military takes complaints of abuse seriously, as it has demonstrated in its response to the Abu Ghraib situation.
"When there are allegations into any kind of detainee abuse ... investigations are conducted to evaluate the validity of those allegations," he said. "If they are determined to be valid, we seek to find those responsible and hold them accountable."
Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Pamela Hart said that this year, the Abu Ghraib allegations prompted the army into a full-scale analysis of its detention policies.
And yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said more investigations would be opened to determine whether abuses occurred in other prisons and prison camps run by the U.S. military.
But human rights advocates said that when military investigations are kept secret, there is no way to ensure they are thorough or effective.
"It's one thing to announce the investigation," said Alistair Hodgett, a spokesman for Amnesty International. "But frankly, it needs to move along promptly. The fact that that didn't occur for the Bagram deaths - we feel it's allowed that type of activity to continue elsewhere."
Hodgett and other human rights advocates said they were disappointed when there was scant public outrage at those deaths.
"When we heard about deaths at Bagram, I thought, 'Now something will be done, there are two dead bodies that need to be accounted for,'" Massimino said. "And nothing happened. Now we have another chance to make it clear to our own people and the rest of the world that we consider this conduct illegal."
Human Rights Watch said in its report that former detainees spoke of beatings, and of being forced to kneel for hours.
Some told of being stripped naked and doused with cold water, others talked of forced sleep deprivation. One former detainee told Human Rights Watch he was photographed naked.
"The most awful thing about the whole experience was how they were taking our pictures and we were completely naked," the report quoted Mohammad Naim as saying. "Completely naked. It was completely humiliating."
The Amnesty International report said that the International Committee of the Red Cross is routinely denied access to detention facilities.
Lines often blurred
Physical torture of prisoners is banned by the Geneva Convention and other treaties, but the line between interrogation and abuse is often blurry, experts say.
Psychological pressure and denying certain comforts are allowed in some circumstances. But treaties also afford prisoners rights such as receiving medical treatment and being allowed access to groups like the Red Cross.
The human rights groups criticized the military for keeping what they called a secret system of unknown detention facilities, which operate without any independent oversight.
"When you have detention without access to human rights groups and journalists, it is a fertilizer, if not a catalyst, for abuse," Sifton said.
Human rights activists said neither the military nor administration has taken the groups' reports seriously enough.
"That's where Iraq and Afghanistan look exactly the same," Sifton said. "We've seen little evidence that the military or the CIA has any interest in seriously disciplining personnel engaged in abuses. Now that the spotlight is on, maybe you'll see action."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun