WASHINGTON — An Army criminal investigation has implicated 28 U.S. soldiers in the beating deaths of two Afghan prisoners found dangling from chains in their cells in December 2002, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
The soldiers -- some of whom were with the military intelligence unit that later transferred to Iraq and was involved in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal there -- face possible charges ranging from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter, Pentagon officials said. An involuntary-manslaughter conviction could result in a 10-year prison term and dishonorable discharge.
As with the Abu Ghraib scandal, those implicated were from a regular Army military intelligence unit -- the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion -- and a reserve military police unit.
Investigators from the Army's Criminal Investigation Command recommended that the soldiers be charged in the deaths of Mullah Habibullah and a taxi driver named Dilawar at the U.S. military's Bagram air base.
One of the 28 soldiers, Sgt. James P. Boland of the Army Reserve's 377th Military Police Company, has already been charged with assault in the case.
Although the deaths of Habibullah and Dilawar occurred several days apart, both men were found to have blood clots caused largely by blunt-force injuries to their legs, autopsies found.
Both cases were complicated by the position in which the men were forced to stand and by dehydration, apparently caused by refusal to eat or drink, said the Pentagon officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Habibullah, about 30, and Dilawar, 35, had been turned over to the Americans after their capture by Afghan forces. Habibullah was held because he was thought to be related to a member of the ousted Taliban regime, officials said. Dilawar, who apparently went by a single name, was suspected in a rocket attack against a U.S. base.
Both men were described as "noncompliant and combative," struggling against their captors and refusing most food and drink offered them.
Habibullah's body was found Dec. 4, 2002, in an isolation cell, chained from the waist to the ceiling, which forced him to remain standing. Dilawar was found Dec. 10, kept upright by chains connecting his hands to the ceiling, officials said.
Pentagon officials would not say whether the men died during or after interrogation. Human rights group Amnesty International has alleged that both were abused in a second-floor interrogation area.
Officials said criminal investigators had been alerted to the cases immediately. Autopsies found that the blood clots suffered by the men traveled to their hearts and lungs. The blows to their legs came mostly from soldiers who had jabbed their knees into the prisoners, U.S. officials said.
In Habibullah's case, the clots led to a pulmonary embolism. In Dilawar's, they prompted a heart attack, according to the investigation.
Pentagon officials declined to name the implicated troops. They were identified only as officers and noncommissioned soldiers from the 519th, an active-duty unit based in Ft. Bragg, N.C., and the 377th, a reserve unit headquartered in Cincinnati, which served in Afghanistan from September 2002 to February 2003.
The 519th transferred to Iraq after leaving Afghanistan in January 2003. At the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, an officer from the battalion, Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, crafted a chart that spelled out the types of interrogation tactics that were permitted and which methods required special approval.
At Abu Ghraib, the collaboration between intelligence and police units led to confusion over who was in charge of prisoners and what the various troops were allowed to do, which contributed to the abuses, according to a recent report by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger.
A determination is expected to be made in the next several weeks on how many of the soldiers implicated in the Afghan deaths should face criminal charges. Prosecutors and commanding officers will review the investigators' recommendations, with the commanding officers having the final say.
"You should not anticipate that there are going to be 28 courts-martial," one Pentagon official said.
Of the 28 soldiers, 14 were involved in both deaths, officials said.
Amnesty International criticized the investigative process as too lengthy.
"The failure to promptly account for the prisoners' deaths indicates a chilling disregard for the value of human life and may have laid the groundwork for further abuses in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere," said Jumana Musa of Amnesty International USA.
Investigators found the cases difficult to resolve because some injuries were not easily noticeable and because they had to review 2,000 documents and interview 250 people, who in many cases had been transferred to other duties in Iraq and elsewhere, Pentagon officials said.