Report finds detainees tortured to death by US military
At least eight detainees of the roughly 100 that the U.S. military have admitted have died in custody in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured to death, human rights lawyers said in a report released yesterday.
The report appears to confirm the fears of human rights activists including Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) who have consistently raised concerns about U.S. detention methods, and deaths in U.S. custody.
"These are detainees who were beaten, suffocated or otherwise died in circumstances that meet the definition of torture that is in the federal law that bans the practice," said Hina Shamsi, a lawyer for New York-based Human Rights First and author of the report.
Analyzing military documents and press accounts, Human Rights First examined 98 detainee deaths, and concluded that torture by U.S. military personnel caused eight deaths and may have been responsible for four others.
The Pentagon has admitted that at least 108 detainees have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, not counting those killed in insurgent mortar attacks on jail facilities.
"Critically, only half of the cases of detainees tortured to death have resulted in punishment; the steepest sentence for anyone implicated in a torture-related death has been five months in jail," the report stated.
The military has said it has a policy against torture, but has acknowledged using interrogation techniques that include placing detainees in stress positions. U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq were also pictured sexually humiliating prisoners and menacing them with dogs.
The report said that of the 98 deaths it examined, only 12 led to punishment of any kind for U.S. personnel.
"People are dying in U.S. custody and no one's being held to account," said Deborah Pearlstein, who heads the Human Rights First U.S. law and security program.
Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman, said about 250 U.S. service members have been punished for mistreatment of detainees, counting those charged with crimes and those given administrative sanctions.
"Any time that we have had allegations of detainee abuse, we investigate any credible allegations, determine the facts and hold people accountable where appropriate no matter what their rank," Ballesteros said.
Human rights activists including members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) who have maintained a continuous presence in Iraq since before the invasion, have criticized the United States over its treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Christian Peacemakers originally presented evidence of 72 cases of abuse by the US military, four months before the United States faced condemnation after the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced in 2004. U.N. human rights investigators last week said Guantanamo detainees faced treatment "amounting to torture," and urged the United States to close the prison.
Human Rights First said 34 detainee deaths fell under the military's definition of a homicide and the facts in another 11 cases suggested death resulted from physical abuse or harsh conditions of detention. In 48 cases, the cause of death was officially undetermined or unannounced, it said.
The group faulted shortcomings in military investigations of deaths, including failure to interview key witnesses or collect and preserve evidence usable by prosecutors, poor military record-keeping and failures by some commanders to report deaths in a timely way.
It said civilian policymakers have given unclear and sometimes unlawful guidance on detainee treatment, but also blamed U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan for failing to exercise good judgement.
"It's my opinion that torture became a common Army practice in Iraq because generals and colonels and majors allowed it to occur, even at times encouraged it.
"Soldiers became torturers because their chain of command chose to look the other way," said retired Army Brig. Gen. David Irvine, an adviser to Human Rights First.