Prison complaints contradicted

THE BALTIMORE SUN

During the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Adhamiya Palace in eastern Baghdad was a luxurious villa that served as a home for Hussein's oldest son, Odai. When American soldiers took control after the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, they converted the complex into a U.S.-run prison where detainees later alleged they suffered abuses far worse than what the world saw in the scandal at Abu Ghraib.

The detainee claims from the palace-turned-prison, documented in Pentagon records released last week, are among the most detailed and raw accounts to surface yet in the far-reaching abuse scandal. The military's response, the investigative files show, followed a predictable pattern.

After taking statements from detainees who alleged abuse that included cigarette burns, electric shocks, forced sodomy and severe beatings, and then interviewing military personnel who worked at the palace, investigators concluded that complaints against U.S. troops there were unfounded or could not be proved.

Military officials say they have thoroughly pursued abuse allegations across Iraq, cases that can be complicated by conflicting claims of violence and innocence, language and cultural barriers and limited physical evidence.

"We take this very, very seriously, and any time there's a credible allegation, we go at it aggressively," Army spokesman Dov Schwartz said last week.

But critics say the investigation into the Adhamiya Palace, a little-noticed prison operation that until now had gone unmentioned in the scandal from Abu Ghraib, illustrates how the military failed repeatedly to fully explore detainees' claims of horrific abuses at prisons across Iraq.

Army investigators, for instance, said they could not prove allegations by a wealthy Iraqi woman that her brother died while being detained at the palace. But there is no indication in the detailed case file that they tried to locate the man's body or a death certificate.

A civilian contractor who supported many of the claims made by detainees at the palace told Army investigators that "about 90 incidents" of abuse could have taken place at the facility. But the investigative case files, obtained and made public by the American Civil Liberties Union in an lawsuit against the government, detail only a few allegations from the palace - and there is no indication that the possibility of dozens of other instances was pursued.

"You can't put yourself completely in the shoes of an investigator. If they had a hard time substantiating some things, then they did," said John Sifton, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "But it appears these weren't the most comprehensive of investigations, and the conclusions don't always seem to match the evidence. It seems weird to terminate an investigation when there are so many things unresolved."

The case files from the Adhamiya Palace include disturbing allegations.

In one case, two detainees claimed that they were beaten by coalition forces, hit and kicked in the ribs, forced to drink urine, subjected to electric shock and sexually assaulted.

Their claims were rejected by investigators with the Army's Criminal Investigation Command after the captain who oversaw the palace prison bluntly said that the detainees should not be believed. The captain, whose name was redacted in government records, said a prison interpreter had overheard detainees conspiring to invent stories of abuse in order to be released from custody.

In another case, a U.S. civilian with the Virginia-based contractor CACI Inc. told investigators that he heard numerous complaints of harsh treatment from prisoners arriving at Abu Ghraib from the Adhamiya Palace.

"While we were screening the detainees, they would ask us, 'Are they going to beat us here, too?," according to a typed statement from the contractor, whose name was blacked out in the records the government released to the ACLU. "Some would have broken shoulders, others came in on crutches. ... I would say there were about 90 incidents that took place."

The contractor said that one detainee who claimed he had been abused remembered that one of his interrogators at the palace had an American flag tattooed on his arm. Others said they thought a former Iraqi security guard was responsible for the abuse, although they said Americans were nearby.

He also recounted in specific detail the claims of one former palace detainee who had been arrested along with his sister and other relatives on suspicion of supporting insurgent fighters. The detainee, the contractor said, was "very upset emotionally and shaking, begging me not to harm him that he would admit to anything I wanted him to."

The family's arrest, which appeared to be the same case recounted by a woman named Houda Al-Azzawi last fall in the French newspaper Le Monde, offered the most detailed account of abuses at the Adhamiya Palace in the case files obtained by the ACLU.

One of the brothers said that he was sodomized with a water bottle and pulled around the prison cell by his penis.

His two sisters told investigators that after they refused bribery demands by Iraqi security forces, they were taken to the prison, where the badly beaten and naked body of another brother was thrown into a cell with them one night.

Another relative told investigators: "It was the day of hell to me."

Military personnel at the palace, however, told another story.

They denied that any detainees were mistreated, and medical records did not show signs of physical abuse, according to the case file. The records also show that details behind the arrest of the family members suggest that U.S. authorities had reason to be skeptical.

According to the documents, the group of relatives was suspected of using extensive family wealth to support the insurgency movement, with one sister allegedly distributing weapons to resistance fighters from her white Mercedes 200E.

One Iraqi source told investigators that the woman was believed to be "the number one financier of terrorism." The source also said that the owner of a neighborhood cafe had told him that when her brothers would visit the cafe and drink heavily, "they start talking about the attacks they conduct against American forces and that their sister [name redacted] finances the fedayeen," resistance fighters.

Army investigators concluded in a July 2, 2004, report that the alleged abuses did not occur, while leaving open the question of whether the one brother had died in U.S. custody:

"Statements provided by the family members were the only indication Mr. [name redacted] was deceased, but based on their lack of credibility this office could not prove or disprove the death."

The detainees, the investigative report concluded, should be charged with making false statements.

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