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Abuse Brings Deaths of Captives Into Focus

At least 18 U.S. detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan died from apparent ill treatment or shootings.

May 16, 2004|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An Afghan captive froze to death in a CIA-run lockup in Kabul in 2002 after he was doused with water and shackled overnight to a wall. The prisoner died, U.S. intelligence sources said, after Afghan guards apparently sought to punish him for being unruly.

At Iraq's Camp Bucca, a detainee was shot through the chest last year while throwing rocks at a guard tower. The Army ruled the killing a "justifiable shooting," but a Red Cross team that witnessed the incident at the facility in southern Iraq concluded that "at no point" did the prisoner pose a serious threat to guards.

At Camp Cropper, near Baghdad's airport, detainee 7166 was shot and killed in June as he tried to crawl under a barbed-wire fence in an escape attempt that commanders had known was being planned a day earlier.

All were deaths in U.S. custody, incidents and individuals largely ignored by outsiders at the time. Now they have emerged from the thicket of military, criminal and congressional investigations into abuse of U.S. captives overseas triggered by mistreatment of detainees at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

The Times has identified at least 18 cases of deaths of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning in 2002 from apparent mistreatment or shootings during prison unrest and other incidents. At least 14 occurred in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. The CIA has been connected by investigators, witnesses or other sources to as many as five of the deaths.

Independent human rights groups insist that more have died than the military has disclosed. They say that the military has refused to release sufficient information and that the investigations so far have provided too little accountability. Apparently, only one low-ranking soldier has been tried and convicted for shooting an unarmed prisoner. He was demoted to private and discharged from the Army.

Until the prison abuse scandal erupted two weeks ago, the Pentagon had refused to say who was being held, where, for how long or on what charges, if any. Defense officials had mostly barred reporters, lawyers and human rights groups from entering America's growing network of foreign detention camps and prisons. The International Committee of the Red Cross, however, did visit.

Faced with the uproar, Army Maj. Gen. Donald J. Ryder told a Senate hearing this month that the military has investigated 25 deaths in custody over the last 18 months. He attributed 12 deaths to natural causes, such as heart attack or illness, or to undetermined factors because relatives had removed the bodies for burial.

Ryder said investigations into 10 other deaths were ongoing, and three more deaths -- including two in Iraq and one involving civilian contractors -- had been classified as homicides.

Pentagon officials Friday declined to provide specifics about deaths in detention. Thus, some confusion remains about precisely which cases are included on Ryder's list.

Seeking Accountability

Amnesty International and other human rights groups insist that the military's list is incomplete. At a minimum, they say, the three homicides cited by Ryder do not include an Afghan named Mullah Habibullah and a taxi driver named Dilawar who died after they were interrogated at the Bagram air base and detention camp north of Kabul, the Afghan capital, in December 2002.

Army pathologists ruled both cases homicides due to "blunt force injuries" to the legs, military spokesmen said previously. Amnesty International alleged that both men were abused in a second-floor interrogation area of the Bagram detention facility. So far, no one has been publicly charged or reprimanded, and a Pentagon spokesman said Friday that both cases are being investigated.

"There's been no public accounting of these two cases," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "That sends the signal that the Bush administration is not terribly serious about upholding international law."

The previously undisclosed death of the Afghan who died of hypothermia predates Ryder's list. U.S. intelligence sources said he died after he was soaked with water and left in an exposed cell on a night when temperatures plummeted.

The Afghan guards "hosed him down and chained him to a wall and it was cold in there and dank, and when they came back in the morning, he had died," said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The sources said it wasn't clear if CIA personnel or contract employees had directed, encouraged or were aware of the mistreatment. But a U.S. official said Friday that the CIA had referred the case to the Justice Department, which decided not to prosecute.

The CIA's inspector-general is investigating three other deaths and has referred them to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. Only one of the three is known to be among the homicide cases Ryder cited.

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