Global Policy Forum

US Military Says 26 Inmate Deaths May Be Homicide


By Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt*

New York Times
March 15, 2005

At least 26 prisoners have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 in what Army and Navy investigators have concluded or suspect were acts of criminal homicide, according to military officials. The number of confirmed or suspected cases is much higher than any accounting the military has previously reported. A Pentagon report sent to Congress last week cited only six prisoner deaths caused by abuse, but that partial tally was limited to what the author, Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III of the Navy, called "closed, substantiated abuse cases" as of last September.

The new figure of 26 was provided by the Army and Navy this week after repeated inquiries. In 18 cases reviewed by the Army and Navy, investigators have now closed their inquiries and have recommended them for prosecution or referred them to other agencies for action, Army and Navy officials said. Eight cases are still under investigation but are listed by the Army as confirmed or suspected criminal homicides, the officials said.

Only one of the deaths occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, officials said, showing how broadly the most violent abuses extended beyond those prison walls and contradicting early impressions that the wrongdoing was confined to a handful of members of the military police on the prison's night shift.

Among the cases are at least four involving Central Intelligence Agency employees that are being reviewed by the Justice Department for possible prosecution. They include a killing in Afghanistan in June 2003 for which David Passaro, a contract worker for the C.I.A., is now facing trial in federal court in North Carolina.

Human rights groups expressed dismay at the number of criminal homicides and renewed their call for a Sept. 11-style inquiry into detention operations and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This number to me is quite astounding," said James D. Ross, senior legal adviser for Human Rights Watch in New York. "This just reflects an overall failure to take seriously the abuses that have occurred."

Pentagon and Army officials rebutted that accusation. Lawrence Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said that he was not aware that the Defense Department had previously accounted publicly for criminal homicides among the detainee deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, but insisted that military authorities were vigorously pursuing each case. "I have not seen the numbers collected in the way you described them, but obviously one criminal homicide is one too many," said Mr. Di Rita, who noted that American forces had held more than 50,000 detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past three years.

Army officials said the killings took place both inside and outside detention areas, including at the point of capture in often violent battlefield conditions. "The Army will investigate every detainee death both inside and outside detention facilities," said Col. Joseph Curtin, a senior Army spokesman. "Simply put, detainee abuse is not tolerated, and the Army will hold soldiers accountable. We are taking action to prosecute those suspected of abuse while taking steps now to train soldiers how to avoid such situations in the future."

In his report last week, Admiral Church concluded that the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan had been the result primarily of a breakdown of discipline, not flawed policies or misguided direction from commanders or Pentagon officials. But he cautioned that his conclusions were "based primarily on the information available to us as of Sept. 30, 2004," and added, "Should additional information become available, our conclusions would have to be considered in light of that information."

In addition to the criminal homicides, 11 cases involving prisoner deaths at the hands of American troops are now listed as justifiable homicides that should not be prosecuted, Army officials said. Those cases included killings caused by soldiers in suppressing prisoner riots in Iraq, they said. Other prisoners have died in captivity of natural causes, the military has found.

An accounting by The New York Times in May 2004, based on reports from military officials and a review of Army documents, identified 16 cases of confirmed or suspected homicide involving prisoners in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. At that time, however, just five were listed as confirmed homicides, with 11 of the cases still under investigation.

The Army defines a homicide as "a death that results from the intentional (explicit or implied) or grossly reckless behavior of another person or persons." "Homicide is not synonymous with murder (a legal determination) and includes both criminal actions and excusable incidents (i.e., self-defense, law enforcement, combat)," according to an Army statement.

The new total of 26 cases involving prisoner deaths confirmed or suspected of being criminal homicides includes 24 cases investigated by the Army and two by the Navy, spokesmen for those services said. Two of the Army cases have since been referred to the Navy, and one to the Justice Department. The Navy said each case included a single prisoner death, but the Army said it was possible that at least some of the cases investigated by the service involved the death of more than one prisoner.

The Marine Corps said that nine Iraqi detainees had died in Marine custody, but that none of the deaths were homicides. It is unclear if this number includes the death of an Iraqi captive shot by a marine in a mosque in Falluja last November, an incident filmed by a television crew. Neither the Army nor the Navy would provide a precise accounting of all of the cases now regarded as confirmed or suspected homicide.

At least eight Army soldiers have now been convicted of crimes in the deaths of prisoners in American custody, including a lieutenant who pleaded guilty at Fort Hood, Tex., this month to charges that included aggravated assault and battery, obstruction of justice and dereliction of duty. A charge of involuntary manslaughter in that case was dropped.

An additional 13 Army soldiers are now being tried, according to Army officials. They include Pfc. Willie V. Brand, who is facing a hearing at Fort Bliss, Tex., next week on charges of manslaughter and maiming in the deaths of two prisoners at Bagram Control Point in Afghanistan in December 2002.

But in some of the cases, including the death of an Iraqi, Manadel al-Jamadi, in Abu Ghraib in November 2003, most of those initially charged with crimes by the military have ended up receiving only nonjudicial punishments, and neither their names nor the details of those punishments have been disclosed.

Altogether, Army criminal investigators had conducted 68 detainee death investigations with 79 possible victims as of February 2005, said Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, an Army spokeswoman. Of those investigations, 53 have been closed and 15 cases remain pending, Colonel Hart said.

In addition to the 24 Army cases listed as criminal homicides and the 11 cases listed as justifiable homicides, 28 cases are listed as confirmed or suspected deaths from accidents or natural causes. An additional five are cases in which the cause of death has not been determined, Colonel Hart said.

Over all, the Army's criminal investigators have examined 308 cases involving allegations of mistreating detainees. They include the 68 death investigations and 240 other allegations of potential misconduct, like allegations of assaults, sexual assaults and thefts, Colonel Hart said. Of the 308 cases, 201 cases are closed and 107 cases were pending as of mid-February 2005.

In addition to the number of detainee deaths, other conclusions in the Church report have drawn scrutiny. The report, for instance, also asserts that psychiatrists and psychologists advising interrogators did not have access to detainees' medical files. That is in sharp contrast to reports from the Red Cross and interrogators interviewed by The Times.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a confidential report last July that the detainees' medical files were open to all. The report said that was unethical and that it diminished the medical care given the detainees, because it discouraged them from seeking medical attention as they knew the information would be shared with interrogators.

One interrogator said in interviews that the files were initially open to all and that it was a regular practice for interrogators simply to go into the detainee hospital and review the records. The interrogator said that when the hospital staff became more reluctant to share the files, the interrogators found that they could ask the psychologists and psychiatrists to obtain them.

Neil A. Lewis contributed reporting for this article.

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