Impunity Endures Two Years After Abu Ghraib

WASHINGTON – Two years after the abuse by U.S. soldiers of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq first came to light, accountability for what turns out to have been a widespread pattern of mistreatment at several detention sites, including torture and at least eight homicides, remains elusive, according to a new report released by three major human rights groups here Wednesday.

"By the Numbers: Findings of the Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project" says that at least 330 credible cases of abuse involving 600 U.S. personnel and 460 alleged victims have been reported in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since late 2001.

So far, however, only 40 troops – almost all of them low-ranking enlisted personnel – have been given prison terms. Of these, 30 were sentenced to less than one year’s confinement, even in cases involving serious abuse, such as the beating deaths of two detainees at the detention facility at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.

"Two years ago, U.S. officials said the abuses at Abu Ghraib were aberrations and that people who abused detainees would be brought to justice," said Meg Satterwhite, who directs the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University (NYU) Law School. "Yet our research shows that detainee abuses were widespread, and few people have truly been brought to justice."

Moreover, only three officers have been convicted in courts martial for their part in detainee abuse, and none under the doctrine of command responsibility, a principle incorporated into U.S. military law that provides that a superior is responsible for the criminal acts of subordinates if he or she knew or should have known of them and failed to prevent them or punish those responsible.

"Our findings reveal a picture of military discipline from which the doctrine of command responsibility is completely absent," noted Elisa Massimino, Washington director of Human Rights First (HRF), an attorneys’ group that includes many retired military lawyers and judges.

"This tradition has been taught as a key component of [military] leadership, but today that doctrine seems to be vanishing, replaced by an abdication of responsibility up the chain of command," she added.

The report found that some 20 civilians, including officers of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), have been referred to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution for detainee abuse. But to date, the department has failed to indict a single CIA official. One CIA contractor has been indicted for assault in the case of the beating death of an Afghan detainee in 2003.

The 27-page report, which was compiled by the Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project (DAA), a joint initiative of the NYU Center, HRF, and Human Rights Watch, comes amid a simmering debate over recent demands by half a dozen retired generals for the resignation of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who explicitly authorized the use of interrogation techniques that human rights defenders contend constitute torture or inhumane treatment.

While the generals, several of whom served in senior command posts in Iraq, have focused their criticism on Rumsfeld’s failure to heed military advice on the number of troops of needed to secure Iraq, some, as well as many retired military lawyers, have also cited his responsibility for the detainee scandal.

"The national embarrassment of Abu Ghraib can be traced right back to strategic policy decisions," wrote ret. Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the First U.S. Infantry Division in Iraq, in the Washington Post last week. "We provided young and often untrained and poorly led soldiers with ambiguous rules for prisoner treatment and interrogation. … The tragedy of Abu Ghraib should have been no surprise to us."

Perhaps in anticipation of this week’s anniversary, the Pentagon was expected to formally charge Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, the former head of the interrogation center at Abu Ghraib, with dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer for his role in the abuse.

If so, he would be the highest-ranking officer at Abu Ghraib to face a court martial for the prison abuses that so far have sent six low-ranking soldiers to prison and resulted in reprimands, fines, and other administrative sanctions of several more senior officers.

"We would welcome [such a prosecution] if it happens," said HRW’s John Sifton, who also worked on the DAA report. He stressed, however, that, despite his position in the chain of command, Jordan was still not being charged for the more serious offenses of his subordinates under the command responsibility doctrine. "It’s not as though these are serious, felony-type counts," he said.

The DAA report, which stressed that the number of reports it has collected is "likely an undercount," found credible reports of more than 1,000 individual criminal acts of abuse on which the 330 cases were based. At least two-thirds of the total number of cases took place in Iraq; at least 60 in Afghanistan; and 50 at Guantanamo.

Of the 330 cases, 120 were either unresolved or went uninvestigated, according to the report, which cited one case, originally reported by the Los Angeles Times, regarding the alleged abuse of five Iraqi women Abu Ghraib, in which military investigators never even interviewed the alleged victims.

Similarly, the report cites another case regarding the detention and alleged beatings and abuse in January 2004 of four Iraqi employees of Reuters and NBC in which, despite several appeals by Reuters, the military closed the case without speaking to the victims.

The 210 cases in which investigations appear to have taken place involved at least 410 personnel, 95 percent of whom were enlisted soldiers, according to the report.

One hundred sixty cases – involving a total of 260 personnel – appear to have ended without any action being taken against the accused, the report concluded.

Administrative or disciplinary action, such as demotions, fines, or other penalties involving minimal or no prison time, appear to have been taken against 57 personnel, while a total of 79 others have been court-martialed.

Of the 79 courts-martial, 54 resulted in convictions. Of these, 40 soldiers were sentenced to prison time averaging four months, according to the report, which noted that light punishments were accorded in a number of serious cases.

One included the "mock execution" of four Iraqi youths. In that case, a Marine was sentenced to 30 days of hard labor without confinement and a fine of $1,056.

In another case in which a detainee was repeatedly shocked "with an electric transformer," two Marines received dishonorable discharges and sentences of one-year and eight-month confinements, respectively, while a third received 60 days of confinement.

The report renewed long-standing appeals for Congress to appoint an independent commission to review U.S. detention and interrogation policies and operations and to require each branch of the military to certify that any officer whose promotion requires Senate confirmation has not been implicated in any case of detainee abuse either directly or through the doctrine of command responsibility.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.