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Red Cross Blew Whistle on Abuses

Inspectors interviewed Iraqi prisoners and told U.S. of mistreatment 'throughout 2003.'

May 08, 2004|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The international Red Cross documented cases of severe mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners far more numerous and far earlier than previously was known, U.S. and Red Cross officials said Friday.

The Red Cross repeatedly warned the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department in confidential reports and closed-door meetings since last spring that U.S. troops were abusing inmates at various military-run prisons in Iraq.

The now-infamous photos of U.S. military police abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib were taken in November, and a classified report of the Pentagon investigation largely focused on incidents at Abu Ghraib beginning in October.

"The elements we found were tantamount to torture," Pierre Kraehenbuehl, operations director for the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters in Geneva. "They were clearly incidents of degrading and inhuman treatment."

He said the ICRC investigations showed "a pattern, a broad system" rather than "isolated acts of individual members of the coalition forces."

Kraehenbuehl said the "concerns ... were regularly brought to the attention" of the U.S.-led coalition "throughout 2003."

He said the ICRC communicated "orally and in writing" with U.S. officials. The ICRC also had expressed concern to British authorities about inmates in British detention camps in Iraq, Kraehenbuehl said.

U.S. officials said the ICRC reports said that Iraqi prisoners in some cases were severely beaten by guards, some inmates were kept naked in dark concrete cells for days, and coalition forces had shot and killed at least seven inmates during prison disturbances.

Red Cross teams inspected 16 coalition-run prisons and interviewed tens of thousands of inmates between March and November last year, including a surprise inspection of Abu Ghraib in October. After the U.S. military replied Dec. 24 to its report, the ICRC returned to Abu Ghraib for four days in early January and again in March.

After each visit, the teams filed confidential reports of their observations and recommendations to prison commanders in Iraq, as well as to Bush administration officials in Washington. ICRC officials held separate meetings in February with L. Paul Bremer III, head of the occupation, and Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

"We had regular meetings with the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House to discuss these prison conditions as well as other issues," said Christophe Girod, the chief ICRC delegate in Washington. "It was part of our dialogue."

Under the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC monitors treatment of prisoners and detainees in war zones. The organization delivers its confidential reports directly to governments that run the prisons, however, and they rarely reach the public. ICRC officials said they were unhappy that details of their reports had leaked to the press.

Girod confirmed details cited in a Wall Street Journal report Friday that described a confidential 24-page summary of last year's prison visits.

The summary report, which was written in January and submitted to U.S. authorities in February, concluded that abuse of prisoners was widespread in Iraq.

During the unannounced October visit to Abu Ghraib, for example, the ICRC monitors witnessed "the practice of keeping persons completely naked in totally empty concrete cells in total darkness for several consecutive days," the report said.

The teams also witnessed guards forcing male prisoners to parade around in women's underwear, according to the summary report. When an ICRC official complained to the military officer in charge, the report says, the American explained that the practice was "part of the process."

The report also describes an incident last September in which coalition forces arrested nine men in the southern city of Basra. It wasn't clear if the troops involved were from the U.S. or another coalition member such as Britain, which has had responsibility for military operations in the Basra area.

The ICRC report said the suspects were "beaten severely by [coalition forces] personnel" and one man, identified as 28-year-old Baha Daoud Salim, died. "His co-arrestees heard him screaming and asking for assistance," the report says.

The report also describes eight separate incidents in which military guards fired weapons, sometimes from guard towers, on unarmed inmates engaged in disturbances. The shootings killed seven people and wounded up to 20. The report noted that coalition forces investigated each incident and determined "a legitimate use of firearms had been made" in each case.

The ICRC investigators, however, wrote that "less extreme measures could have been used to quell the demonstrations." The report cites one case in which a guard in a watchtower shot a prisoner in the chest who had been throwing stones.

The military said the shooting was justified. But the ICRC said the shooting "showed a clear disregard for human life and security" of prisoners.

The summary also says the ICRC filed a report to U.S. authorities last July detailing 50 allegations of serious prisoner abuse at the military intelligence section of Camp Cropper at the Baghdad International Airport.

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