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Pentagon: Koran Defiled

An Army commander's report details five instances of the holy book being desecrated at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

June 04, 2005|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon late Friday confirmed five incidents of Koran desecration at the prison for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, wrapping up a high-priority investigation.

The findings concluded that one soldier deliberately kicked the Muslim holy book, other guards hit it with water balloons, and a soldier's urine splashed on a prisoner and his Koran.

Details of the incidents are contained in the final report of the inquiry headed by Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, commander of the detention center for terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

The report established that two other cases of desecration had occurred. In one, a two-word obscenity was written in English inside a prisoner's Koran. In the other, an interrogator deliberately stepped on the book. That interrogator was later fired for "a pattern of unacceptable behavior."

Charges of Koran desecration triggered vociferous protests in the Muslim world and were blamed for contributing to riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan that resulted in more than two dozen deaths. But Hood, in releasing his final report, said his investigators found no proof that U.S. personnel flushed a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay, an assertion reported but later retracted by Newsweek magazine.

"The inquiry found no credible evidence that a member of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay ever flushed a Koran down a toilet," Hood said. "This matter is considered closed."

Lawrence Di Rita, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said that military policy called for "respectful and appropriate" handling of the Koran. "The Hood inquiry would appear to confirm that policy," said Di Rita, who was traveling with Rumsfeld in Asia.

Hood said the five confirmed incidents represented a very small number when measured against the fact that more than 1,600 copies of the holy book had been distributed to prisoners since the facility in Cuba was opened in January 2002.

And the general said his team gathered evidence that detainees themselves desecrated the Koran on 15 separate occasions. Two of them tossed their copies into toilets while another was seen "urinating on the Koran," the report said. Hood said that guards also spotted detainees using the Koran as a pillow and ripping out its pages.

"Mishandling a Koran at Guantanamo Bay is a rare occurrence," he said, noting that guards, interrogators, interpreters and other military personnel were trained to handle the holy book in specified ways. Gloves must be worn and both hands are to be used in a "manner signaling respect and reverence," the report noted.

At least some of the special handling rules were instituted after a rash of detainee complaints of mistreatment of the Koran in 2002 that led to a series of hunger strikes. After the rules were put in place, the International Red Cross reported that it received no further complaints.

"Mishandling of a Koran here is never condoned," Hood said. "When one considers the many thousands of times detainees have been moved and cells have been searched ... I think one can only conclude that respect for detainee religious beliefs was embedded in the culture of the [Joint Task Force] from the start."

Hood said his investigation took three weeks and involved the review of more than 30,000 documents. "We reviewed every available detainee record," the general said.

In Washington, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, issued a statement saying, "President Bush must address the climate of abuse that seems to prevail at U.S. detention centers worldwide." Awad said it was not enough to merely issue reports outlining abuse or to punish low-level personnel.

"Those at the top must be held responsible for the actions of the men and women they command," he said.

Hood's report described the five confirmed desecrations.

During an interrogation in February 2002, a detainee complained that guards had kicked the Koran belonging to a prisoner in a nearby cell four or five days earlier. The interrogator reported the complaint in a written memorandum and confirmed that the guards were aware of the allegation.

"There is no evidence of further investigation concerning this incident," the report said. "However, we consider this a confirmed report."

The second incident occurred on July 25, 2003, when a contract interrogator apologized to a prisoner for stepping on his Koran. The prisoner accepted the apology, and told other detainees "to cease disruptive behavior caused by the incident."

The report added that "the interrogator was later terminated for a pattern of unacceptable behavior, an inability to follow direct guidance and poor leadership."

The third episode took place Aug. 15, 2003, when two detainees complained "that their Korans were wet because the night shift guards had thrown water balloons on the [cell] block." Guards on a swing shift passed the complaints on to superiors.

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