WASHINGTON — Four U.S. soldiers were accused of murder in the 2002 death of a detainee in Afghanistan but the charges against all but one eventually were dropped, according to Pentagon officials who confirmed the previously undisclosed case Monday after it was uncovered by a human rights group.
The Pentagon also confirmed the death of another detainee in Afghanistan this year, bringing the number of known deaths of prisoners there to eight, according to defense officials and recently released documents. Those cases, as well as a third involving the death of an Afghan soldier mistakenly arrested by U.S. forces, were highlighted Monday in a letter sent by Human Rights Watch to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"The detention system in Afghanistan continues to operate outside the rule of law," Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia section of the advocacy group, wrote. "The government's failure to hold its personnel accountable for serious abuses has spawned a culture of impunity among some personnel."
Human Rights Watch's disclosures, in addition to allegations of other abuses in Afghanistan and at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere, have kept Pentagon officials under pressure to provide more information on abused prisoners and crack down on soldiers who are responsible for the abuses.
The allegations have angered Muslim countries, where anti-U.S. sentiment has risen because of the Iraq war. U.S. officials have vowed to investigate the abuses. "We continue to look at any credible allegation of detainee abuse, and we continue to investigate all detainee deaths regardless of the circumstances," said Air Force Col. John Skinner, a Pentagon spokesman. "And our policy has been and will always remain the humane treatment of all detainees. Anything less is not tolerated."
Pentagon officials confirmed that four U.S. Special Forces troops were investigated on allegations of murder, conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the death of a prisoner listed as M. Sayari on Aug. 28, 2002. Sayari's was the first known death of a U.S. prisoner in the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
One of the troops received an undisclosed administrative punishment, Army spokeswoman Col. Pamela Hart said. Such a penalty could range from a verbal reprimand to discharge from the Army. Charges against the other three were dropped because of insufficient evidence, she said.
Neither the soldiers' names nor their units were disclosed. An Army spokeswoman confirmed that they included a captain and three noncommissioned Special Forces troops.
The unit in Afghanistan at the time was the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Ft. Campbell, Ky.
In the case that occurred this year, detainee Sher Mohammed Khan was arrested Sept. 24 during a raid on his family's home near Khost and died the next day in U.S. custody, according to the documents and Human Rights Watch. Military investigators are awaiting final autopsy results before concluding an inquiry and deciding if charges are warranted, Hart said. The prisoner's brother, Mohammed Rais Khan, was shot and killed by American troops during the raid.
The Human Rights Watch letter to Rumsfeld also cited the March 2003 death of Jamal Naseer, which was detailed in an article in The Times in September. In that case, investigators are reviewing allegations of murder and torture in the treatment of the 18-year-old Afghan army recruit, who died in U.S. custody.
The inquiry also is examining the alleged torture of seven other Afghan soldiers, according to the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. The soldiers were arrested at the request of an Afghan provincial governor who was feuding with local military commanders, according to an Afghan intelligence report. None of the eight men was charged with a crime or linked to anti-government conduct.
Naseer, a member of the Afghan Army III Corps, was severely beaten over at least two weeks, according to a report prepared for the Afghan attorney general. A witness described his battered corpse as "green and black" with bruises.
U.S. troops' mistreatment of the Afghan prisoners included repeated beatings, immersion in cold water, electric shocks and toenails being torn off, according to Afghan investigators and a memorandum by a United Nations group that interviewed the surviving Afghan soldiers.