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


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.

In the case involving the Iraqi detainee dragged from his cell by the neck in June 2003, the prison's Marine commander, Maj. Clarke Paulus, was expelled from the Marines but received no jail time after being found guilty last month of maltreatment and dereliction of duty. A second Marine convicted in the case was sentenced to 60 days' hard labor. Charges against six others were dropped.

At Fort Carlson, Colo., this month, authorities closed to the public a pretrial hearing for three soldiers accused of killing an Iraqi general detained by U.S. forces.

In an earlier anonymous case, authorities said a soldier who shot and killed a prisoner throwing rocks at him in September 2003 was charged with using excessive force and punished with a reduction in rank and discharge from the military.

Some detainee deaths remain under investigation, with no one charged. In other cases, nonmilitary investigators have stepped in, as in the case of David A. Passaro, a civilian contractor charged in U.S. District Court in North Carolina with the death of Abdul Wali, who died at a U.S. base in the Afghan town of Asadabad on June 21, 2003.

The Pentagon announced in May that 15 detainee deaths had been determined to be from natural causes. Eight other deaths were the result of justifiable killings, authorities said.

Questions and problems

Still, questions persist about some of the findings and the results of investigations, said John Sifton, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. Sifton noted that none of the eight death investigations the military has acknowledged in Afghanistan has resulted in a conviction.

Some prosecutions brought in detainee death cases from Iraq, meanwhile, have encountered evidence problems. In the case involving the Marine Major Paulus, a military judge blocked the introduction of all medical evidence after key forensic items, including victim Nagem Sadoon Hatab's rib cage and larynx, were missing for a year.

In a separate case, a military judge at Fort Hood approved a request last week to exhume the body of the Iraqi prisoner believed to have drowned in the Tigris River in January. Defense attorneys say the alleged victim, 19-year-old Zaidoun Hassoun, might be alive, and investigators have acknowledged they never saw the victim's corpse but relied on the word of relatives and a family videotape showing a body in a coffin.

Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the Army's criminal investigators, defended the work of agents who are trying to solve death cases that are far more complex than routine homicide cases inside the United States. "You don't jump into a detective car and ride down the street and do your interviews," Grey said.

Peroneal hits

In the two detainee deaths at Bagram, CID agents conducted more than 100 interviews, according to reports prepared June 1 and July 6. The reports give a detailed account of the death of Mullah Habibullah, who died Dec. 4, 2003, of "pulmonary embolism resulting from blunt force injuries to the legs," according to autopsy findings, and the death a week later of an Afghan identified only as Dilawar.

A medical examiner attributed Dilawar's death Dec. 10, 2002, to "blunt force trauma to the lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease," according to the CID reports.

The reports summarize statements from a number of soldiers at the Bagram facility, who recounted how the detainees were shackled from the ceiling and then kicked or hit repeatedly in the knee area - a combat strike known as a peroneal hit in military parlance. In hand-to-hand combat, the karate-style kick can disable the peroneal nerve and knock a foe to the ground.

One soldier from the military police unit that guarded the detainees recounted a conversation with a fellow soldier, who had claimed "he must have given that guy [Habibullah] fifty common peroneals and he deserved every one of them."

In the reports, the agents assigned blame in the two deaths widely - implicating military police from the Cincinnati-based 377th Military Police Company and military intelligence soldiers from the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, as well as the captains who supervised the two units.

Only one member of the 377th unit is charged. Sgt. James P. Boland, 34, is accused of assault, maltreatment and dereliction of duty in the case.

A Pentagon official said last week that there could be further action on the case next month, including against Wood and the commander of the military police company, who is identified in the CID reports as Capt. Christopher M. Beiring.

Wood, 34, declined an interview request last week through a spokeswoman at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where she is based. Beiring, 38, could not be reached last week to comment.

Army investigators in the July 6 CID report said that Beiring had "allowed a number of his soldiers to mistreat detainees, ultimately leading to Dilawar's death."

"Additionally, Beiring failed to comply with the guidance of the Bagram Legal Advisor, who instructed him to tell his soldiers to, 'stop hanging and hitting the detainees,' after a previous death," the investigators said in the report. "Their failure to heed this guidance, and modify their behavior, resulted in Dilawar's death."

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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