A four-count indictment handed up in Raleigh, N.C., accused David A. Passaro, 37, of beating a prisoner "using his hands and feet, and a large flashlight" during two days of interrogations about rocket attacks aimed at the Asadabad military base in northern Afghanistan.
The prisoner, identified in court papers as Abdul Wali, was a suspect in the attacks and had turned himself in to American authorities June 18, 2003. Wali died in a prison cell on the base June 21, 2003, according to the indictment.
The case against Passaro, announced in Washington by Attorney General John Ashcroft, is the first time a civilian has been charged in the prison abuse scandal, which has drawn attention to the increased use of private contractors for the sensitive task of wartime interrogations.
Six low-ranking soldiers from a Western Maryland-based Army Reserve unit are charged in the military courts with mistreating detainees at the more notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad. A seventh soldier pleaded guilty in that case last month.
At Abu Ghraib, an internal Army investigation concluded that two civilians working for private contracting firms and two military intelligence officers were "directly or indirectly" responsible for abuses that included inmates being punched, stepped on and forced into sexually humiliating poses.
Allegations of prison abuse in Afghanistan have received less attention, although Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented abuses there in detailed reports over the past year. The U.S. military promised improvements to prison operations in Afghanistan this week, after an inspection by a top general.
"The government has to do more than investigate and prosecute, although that's an important part," said Vienna Colucci, an international justice specialist with Amnesty International. She said contractors need better training and oversight to ensure that they are following international and U.S. law in the handling of prisoners overseas.
At an afternoon news conference, Ashcroft declined to describe Passaro's relationship with the CIA. He said the death investigation was referred to the Justice Department last fall by the CIA's inspector general.
Ashcroft acknowledged that there had been additional referrals from the CIA, as well as one from the Defense Department. He said each of the cases was referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of Virginia, which has jurisdiction over the Pentagon and CIA headquarters and has handled a number of high-profile national security cases.
CIA spokesman Tom Crispell said the agency "does not support or condone unlawful activities of any sort and has an obligation to report possible violations of the law to appropriate authorities." He added that in Passaro's case, "That was done promptly."
He is charged with two counts of assault and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, all occurring on U.S. military territory overseas. If convicted, Passaro faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.
In North Carolina, Passaro's former wife said yesterday that he had served as an Army Ranger and with Army Special Forces before leaving the military. The ex-wife, Kerry Meehan Passaro, described her former husband as a "violent and abusive person" and said the charges were not a surprise.
"I feel terrible for whoever was hurt," she said in a brief telephone interview.
Neither Passaro nor any attorneys representing him could be reached to comment.
As the prison abuse scandal has unfolded, Democratic lawmakers have charged that the Bush administration opened the door for the human rights abuses through a series of memos arguing that the wartime protections of the Geneva Conventions would not necessarily apply under the new rules of the war on terror.
Administration officials have repeatedly rejected those suggestions. Asked yesterday whether Justice Department memos could have contributed to the abuses, Ashcroft said flatly: "Absolutely not."
He also defended the length of the investigation. It was a year ago today that the victim, Wali, presented himself to U.S. authorities in Afghanistan.