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Afghanistan: Killing and Torture by U.S. Predate Abu Ghraib

After Two Years, U.S. Forces Still Not Prosecuted for Homicides

(New York) - U.S. forces in Afghanistan were involved in killings, torture and other abuses of prisoners even before the Iraq war started, Human Rights Watch said today. These crimes, known to senior officials in the military and Central Intelligence Agency, have not still been adequately investigated or prosecuted.

Human Rights Watch said that at least six detainees in U.S. custody in Afghanistan have been killed since 2002, including one man held by the CIA. More than two years later, no U.S. personnel have been charged with homicide in any of these deaths, although U.S. Department of Defense documents show that five of the six deaths were clear homicides.

“Prison abuse by U.S. personnel didn’t begin at Abu Ghraib,” said John Sifton, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As early as 2002, U.S. forces were responsible for torturing and killing prisoners in Afghanistan.”

A military intelligence brigade involved in abuse at Bagram airbase outside Kabul, including two deaths, was later deployed from Afghanistan to Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

Killings and other cases of torture and abuse in Afghanistan uncovered by Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups include:

  • An Afghan detainee known as “M. Sayari” was killed by four U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan in August 2002. According to Department of Defense documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, a captain and three sergeants “murdered Mr. [Sayari] after detaining him for following their movements in Afghanistan.” A U.S. Army spokesperson told journalists that the Special Forces Command had declined to prosecute any of the four, and that one of the four soldiers received an “administrative reprimand.”
  • In November 2002, the CIA was reportedly involved in the torture and killing of a detainee in Afghanistan. A CIA case officer at the “Salt Pit,” a secret U.S.-run prison just north of Kabul, ordered guards to “strip naked an uncooperative young Afghan detainee, chain him to the concrete floor and leave him there overnight without blankets,” the Washington Post reported on March 3, after interviewing four government officials familiar with the case. According to the article, Afghan guards “paid by the CIA and working under CIA supervision” dragged the prisoner around the concrete floor of the facility, “bruising and scraping his skin,” before placing him in a cell for the night without clothes. An autopsy by a medic listed “hypothermia” as the cause of death, and the man was buried in an “unmarked, unacknowledged cemetery.” A U.S. government official interviewed told the Post: “He just disappeared from the face of the earth.”
  • Two detainees were killed in December 2002 at Bagram airbase. These cases were previously reported by Human Rights Watch and were the subject of an exhaustive investigation by the New York Times. According to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch and a criminal investigation file obtained by the Times, two Afghan detainees named Dilawar and Habibullah died at Bagram airbase after being chained to the ceiling and severely beaten by U.S. guards and interrogators. Military intelligence officers knew of the pattern of abuses at the time, but failed to stop them. Although several soldiers were eventually charged with assault—in the wake of continued reporting on the case by Human Rights Watch—no personnel have been charged with homicide. In the months after the deaths, the U.S. military continued to tell journalists that the detainees had died of natural causes.
  • A detainee arrested by U.S. soldiers in Wazi village in January 2003 also died in custody. After Human Rights Watch wrote a public letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in December, complaining about lack of accountability in investigating and prosecuting some for the cases above, the Army released a statement to journalists mentioning this case with the notation: “Case remains ongoing.”
  • Jamal Naseer, a soldier in the U.S.-backed official Afghan Army, was killed in March 2003 after he and seven other soldiers were mistakenly arrested by U.S. forces and taken to a base in Gardez. Surviving detainees who were arrested with Naseer allege that U.S. forces punched them, kicked them, hung them upside down, and hit them with sticks or cables, among other abuses. Some said they were soaked in cold water and forced to lie in snow, and subjected to electrical shocks. Researchers with the Crimes of War project, a non-government organization, uncovered this death in September.

At least two more killings occurred after the Iraq war began:

  • Another Afghan detainee, Abdul Wali, died in custody in June 2003 at the Asadabad airbase in eastern Afghanistan. A CIA contractor has been indicted for assault in this case, but there are no homicide charges pending against him or anyone else, nor has the military released any information about the circumstances of Abdul Wali’s death.
  • Sher Mohammad Khan died in U.S. custody on September 25, a day after he was arrested in a raid on his family’s home near Khost in which his brother, Mohammad Rais Khan, was shot and killed by U.S. forces. Military officials in Khost first told journalists in Kabul that he had died of a heart attack, and that the Khan family were “bad guys.” The Guardian later reported that a U.S. colonel based in Gardez said that Sher Mohammad Khan was “bitten by a snake and died in his cell,” and that the case was closed.

Human Rights Watch said that previous investigations ordered by the Bush administration and Department of Defense had failed to uncover the scope of abuses committed by the military and CIA in Afghanistan or Iraq. Human Rights Watch renewed its calls for an independent commission on prisoner abuse and for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate any U.S. officials — regardless of rank or position — who participated in, ordered or had command responsibility for war crimes, torture or other prohibited ill-treatment against detainees in U.S. custody.

“The U.S. military and CIA have shown that they cannot police themselves,” said Sifton. “Until an independent prosecutor is appointed, the real facts won’t come out.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Department of Defense to release the results of the Army’s own investigation on treatment of detainees in Afghanistan. The study, concluded in July by Army General Charles H. Jacoby Jr., remains classified. At the same time, the CIA should release the report of its inspector general on detention procedures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It’s time for the Bush administration to come clean about the scope of abuses in Afghanistan,” said Sifton.

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