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Dozens Have Alleged Koran's Mishandling

Complaints by inmates in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba emerged early. In 2003, the Pentagon set a sensitivity policy after trouble at Guantanamo.

May 22, 2005|Richard A. Serrano and John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Senior Bush administration officials reacted with outrage to a Newsweek report that U.S. interrogators had desecrated the Koran at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility, and the magazine retracted the story last week. But allegations of disrespectful treatment of Islam's holy book are far from rare.

An examination of hearing transcripts, court records and government documents, as well as interviews with former detainees, their lawyers, civil liberties groups and U.S. military personnel, reveals dozens of accusations involving the Koran, not only at Guantanamo, but also at American-run detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Pentagon is conducting an internal investigation of reported abuses at the naval base in Cuba, led by Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Schmidt. The administration has refused to say what the inquiry, still weeks from completion, has found so far.

But two years ago, amid allegations of desecration and hunger strikes by inmates, the Army instituted elaborate procedures for sensitive treatment of the Koran at the prison camp. Once the new procedures were in place, complaints there stopped, said the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors conditions in prisons and detention facilities.

The allegations, both at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, contain detailed descriptions of what Muslim prisoners said was mishandling of the Koran -- sometimes in a deliberately provocative manner.

In one instance, an Iraqi detainee alleged that a soldier had a guard dog carry a copy of the Koran in its mouth. In another, guards at Guantanamo were said to have scrawled obscenities inside Korans.

Other prisoners said Korans were kicked across floors, stomped on and thrown against walls. One said a soldier urinated on his copy, and others said guards ridiculed the religious text, declaring that Allah's words would not save detainees.

Some of the alleged incidents appear to have been inadvertent or to have resulted from U.S. personnel's lack of understanding about how sensitive Muslim detainees might be to mishandling of the Koran. In several cases, for instance, copies were allegedly knocked about during scuffles with prisoners who refused to leave their cells.

In other cases, the allegations seemed to describe instances of deliberate disrespect.

"They tore it and threw it on the floor," former detainee Mohammed Mazouz said of guards at Guantanamo Bay. "They urinated on it. They walked on top of the Koran. They used the Koran like a carpet."

"We told them not to do it. We begged. And then they did it some more," said Mazouz, a Moroccan who was seized in Pakistan soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Recently released, he described the alleged incidents in a telephone interview from his home in Marrakech.

Ahmad Naji Abid Ali Dulaymi, who was held at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq for 10 months, singled out a soldier or noncommissioned officer known to detainees only as "Fox." He said prisoners were forced to sit naked, were licked by dogs, and were soaked in cold water and then forced to sit in front of a powerful air-conditioner.

"But frankly," he said, "the worst insult and humiliation they were doing to us, especially for the religious ones among us, is when they, especially Fox, tore up holy books of Koran and threw them away into the trash or into dirty water.

"Almost every day, Fox used to take a brand new Koran, and tear off the plastic cover in front of us and then throw it away into the trash container."

The hunger strikes erupted in 2002 at Guantanamo when word swept the camp that Korans were being desecrated. In response, the Defense Department's Southern Command, which oversees the prison, issued four pages of guidelines instructing soldiers in the proper way of "inspecting and handling" Korans.

In essence, the books are generally to be handled only by Muslim chaplains working for the military, and guards were instructed not to touch the Koran unless absolutely necessary.

Muslims revere the Koran as the word of God and have rules for handling it. It is always kept in a high place with nothing on top of it. A ritual ablution is required before touching a copy, which must be held above the waist. Some Muslims hold that nonbelievers must not touch the holy book.

At that time, the Red Cross was fielding similar complaints from prisoners, and with the January 2003 written policy the problems seemed to cease.

"The ICRC believes the U.S. authorities did take corrective measures," said Simon Schorno, a spokesman in Washington.

Other sensitivity training is continuing. At Ft. Lewis in Washington state, guards and other soldiers headed to Guantanamo Bay and other facilities go through classes and exercises to increase awareness of Arab and Muslim customs, said Lt. Col. Warren Perry. Much of the training deals specifically with the Koran.

"Don't step on it, don't bump it, don't disrespect it," he said.

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