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U.S. Probing Alleged Abuse of Afghans

Inquiry focuses on an 18-year-old soldier who died while in American custody. He and seven other prisoners were tortured, witnesses say.

September 21, 2004|Craig Pyes and Mark Mazzetti | Special to The Times

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — American military investigators have opened a criminal probe into allegations of murder and torture involving an 18-year-old Afghan army recruit who died while in U.S. custody last year. The new inquiry, which will also focus on the alleged torture of seven other Afghan soldiers, was confirmed Monday by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.

The previously undisclosed death occurred in March 2003 after the eight soldiers were arrested at a remote firebase operated here by the U.S. Army Special Forces, according to witnesses and an Afghan military investigation.

Motivation for those arrests remains cloaked in Afghan political intrigue. The action was requested by a provincial governor feuding with local military commanders, an Afghan intelligence report says.

In the end, none of the eight men was charged with a crime or linked to anti-government conduct.

The dead soldier, identified as Jamal Naseer, a member of the Afghan Army III Corps, was severely beaten over a span of at least two weeks, according to a report prepared for the Afghan attorney general. A witness described his battered corpse as being "green and black" with bruises.

Alleged American mistreatment of the detainees included repeated beatings, immersion in cold water, electric shocks, being hung upside down and toenails being torn off, according to Afghan investigators and an internal memorandum prepared by a United Nations delegation that interviewed the surviving soldiers.

Some of the Afghan soldiers were beaten to the point that they could not walk or sit, Afghan doctors and other witnesses said.

Afghan military prosecutors looking into the incident privately recommended more than a year ago that the Afghan attorney general's office pursue a murder case against unnamed American soldiers at the Gardez firebase. No action on the recommendation was taken, but the prosecutors say the case is still open.

The prosecutors' confidential 117-page investigative report recently was reviewed by a Washington-based nonprofit educational organization, the Crimes of War Project, and the information was provided to The Times. The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, or CID, stymied in an earlier attempt to investigate the incident, launched its probe over the weekend in response to questions by The Times about the Afghan report.

The eight-man Afghan army unit was taken prisoner as part of a campaign by U.S. forces and the local governor to bring Paktia province in southeastern Afghanistan under the control of the central government, Afghan and U.N. officials said. American forces suspected that some Afghan commanders were selling weapons to anti-government forces, they said.

After Naseer's death, the seven other troops were transferred to Afghan police custody and released without charges. None was linked to Al Qaeda or the forces of the ousted Taliban regime.

Former Atty. Gen. for the Armed Forces Yar Mohammed Tamkin, who directed the Afghan investigation, concluded in the report that there was a "strong possibility" that Jamal Naseer was "murdered as the result of torture" at the hands of his American captors.

He added that under Afghan law, "it is necessary for our legal system to investigate the torture of the seven individuals and the murder of Jamal, son of Ghazi, and other similar acts committed by foreign nationals."

One witness account provided to Tamkin's investigators came from Naseer's brother, an Afghan army commander also among those detained at Gardez. He told investigators in a statement that soon after Naseer died, two "high-ranking" U.S. soldiers squabbled near the body.

One American, he said, grabbed the other by the collar, scolded him for torturing the youth and said he "should have been shot with a bullet," according to the report.

None of the suspected Americans was identified in the Afghan military's investigation.

The 20th Special Forces Group was in charge of the Special Forces mission throughout Afghanistan at the time of the Gardez incident. It is a National Guard group based in Birmingham, Ala., that also draws soldiers from units in Florida and Mississippi. Officials said it was customarily assigned to Latin American operations.

The 20th group was replaced countrywide on March 15, 2003, by the 3rd Special Forces Group from Ft. Bragg, N.C., U.S. officials said.

'The Gardez 7'

In Washington, Pentagon officials said they could find no reports passed up the chain of command as required when a death occurs in U.S. custody, raising questions about possible efforts by American troops in Afghanistan to cover up the incident.

Earlier this year, the CID received a tip about the incident from an Afghan prison official but said it was unable to investigate the matter because of a lack of information.

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