Afghan Deaths Spur Calls for Independent Investigation

Thursday’s recommendation by the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division that 28 soldiers be charged in connection with the beating deaths of two prisoners held at a detention facility in Afghanistan in December 2002 has spurred new calls for an entirely independent investigation of abuses of detainees by U.S. forces in "war on terrorism."

The announcement, which said that charges could include involuntary manslaughter and maiming, as well as less serious offenses, came just shy of two years after the two prisoners died. Human rights observers have deplored the military’s failure to immediately investigate the deaths, suggesting there may have been an attempt to cover them up.

"Taking 22 months to investigate apparent homicides that occurred in U.S.-run overseas prisons is not conducive to protecting prisoners from torture and abuse," said Jumana Musa of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) shortly after the announcement.

"In fact, 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."

"This announcement is further evidence that the ill-treatment of detainees did not start at Abu Ghraib, and will not stop without a comprehensive independent investigation of the torture scandal, including all identified and ‘secret’ detention facilities operated or accessed by the U.S.," she added.

Thursday’s announcement came amid reports that the Pentagon is reviewing the case of four Iraqi journalists who claimed last January that they had been abused by U.S. soldiers at a forward operating base (FOB) near Fallujah for some 50 hours after being detained near the scene of a helicopter crash.

The Pentagon initially dismissed their allegations of being hooded, beaten, slapped, forced to sit and stand in "stress positions and acts of sexual humiliation as not credible and possibly part of an anti-coalition information campaign" by Reuters news agency, which employed the men.

But in light of the Abu Ghraib scandal, which came to light in April, as well as a series of Pentagon or Pentagon-commissioned reports released last summer that suggested that abuses were much more widespread than initially thought, the Defense Department was apparently prevailed upon to review the case, according to an account published Thursday in the New York Times.

Thursday’s Army announcement also comes on the heels of an investigative report by the Los Angeles Times in late September that U.S. Special Forces at a FOB near Gardez, Afghanistan, beat and tortured eight Afghan Army soldiers in March 2003 over more than a two-week period until one of the captives died. The survivors were then transferred to the custody of a nearby police station and held there secretly until their wounds healed more than six weeks later.

The Pentagon has announced an investigation into that incident, as well.

At the same time, the Navy announced that it had charged three more members of the Navy SEALs in connection with the abuse of Iraqi prisoners between October 2003 and April 2004, two of whom died after beatings by U.S. commandos. That brought to seven the number of Navy SEALs who face criminal charges over abuses committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of these incidents have tended to confirm the contentions of human rights groups and others that abuses of detainees held by the U.S. military have been far more widespread than the Pentagon has admitted to date, a conclusion that is also a central thesis of a new book, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, published last month by New Yorker investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh.

In his new book, Hersh, who broke the Abu Ghraib scandal along with CBS’ 60 Minutes, also argued that senior military and national-security officials in the Bush administration were repeatedly warned by subordinates in 2002 and 2003 that prisoners held by the military were subject to abuses, an accusation the administration has strongly denied since the Abu Ghraib scandal first came to light.

"The roots of the Abu Ghraib scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists," as maintained by the administration to date, "but in the reliance of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on secret operations and the use of coercion, and eye-for-eye retribution, in fighting terrorism."

That policy, which was implicitly supported by a series of memos drafted by politically appointed lawyers in the Justice and Defense Departments and the White House that have subsequently leaked to the press, according to Hersh, migrated from Afghanistan to Iraq, setting the stage for the Abu Ghraib abuses.

Amnesty’s Musa said Thursday that any independent investigation "should include a determination whether administration officials bear criminal liability for torture or inhuman treatment of prisoners."

The latest case involved the death of Mullah Habibullah in early December. According to an autopsy report prepared at the time, the victim died of a "pulmonary embolism due to blunt-force injuries to the legs." The death was identified as a "homicide."

About a week later, a second Afghan detainee, identified only as Dilawar, died as a result of "blunt-force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease."

Both victims were in their 20s.

In addition to involuntary manslaughter and maiming, charges that were recommended by the Division include dereliction of duty and assault. The former applies to soldiers "as yet unidentified" who failed to restrain their comrades in beating or otherwise abusing the prisoners.

Given the growing number of abuse cases and what is known about them, many civil-society groups and U.S. lawmakers have called for an independent investigation of detainee abuses outside the control of the administration and the Pentagon. To date, all investigations have been conducted under Defense Department auspices.

Among the groups are the American Bar Association (ABA), Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), and Physicians for Human Rights, which has also expressed concern about the failure of U.S. medics and doctors to stop or report the abuses that came to their attention.

(One World)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.