Abuse plagued Afghan camps, too
Second of five parts KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. soldiers herded the detainees into holding pens of razor-sharp concertina wire, used...
Guantánamo: Beyond the Law
Monday: Abuse plagued Afghan camps, too
Tuesday: Detainees recruited for jihad
Wednesday: Secret strategies led to abuse
Thursday: The king of Guantánamo
About this projectEarly in 2007, as the Bush administration indicated that it intended to release most of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay, McClatchy Newspapers set out to track down as many of the freed prisoners as possible. Reporters Tom Lasseter and Matthew Schofield traveled to 11 countries — from England to Pakistan — and interviewed 66 former detainees. They also interviewed political and military officials in those countries to try to establish detainees' backgrounds and check their stories. Lasseter and Schofield also combed through unclassified transcripts of the men's tribunal hearings at Guantánamo, when available, and Lasseter interviewed former White House and Defense Department officials, former guards and lawyers for prisoners who had them.
Second of five parts
KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. soldiers herded the detainees into holding pens of razor-sharp concertina wire, used to corral livestock.
The guards kicked, kneed and punched many of the men until they collapsed in pain. U.S. troops shackled and dragged other detainees to small isolation rooms and hung them by their wrists from chains dangling from the wire mesh ceiling.
Former guards and detainees McClatchy interviewed said Bagram Air Base was a center of systematic brutality for at least 20 months, starting in late 2001. Yet the soldiers responsible have escaped serious punishment.
The public outcry in the United States and abroad has focused on detainee abuse at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but sadistic violence first appeared at Bagram, north of Kabul, and at a similar U.S. internment camp at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.
McClatchy's eight-month investigation found a pattern of abuse that continued for years. The abuse of detainees at Bagram has been reported by U.S. media organizations, in particular The New York Times, which broke several developments in the story. But the extent of the mistreatment, and that it eclipsed the alleged abuse at Guantánamo, hasn't been revealed previously.
Guards said they routinely beat their prisoners to retaliate for al-Qaida's Sept. 11 attacks, unaware that the vast majority of detainees had little or no connection to al-Qaida.
Former detainees at Bagram and Kandahar said they were beaten regularly. Of 41 former Bagram detainees interviewed, 28 said guards or interrogators had assaulted them. Only eight of those men said they were beaten at Guantánamo Bay. But because President Bush loosened or eliminated rules governing the treatment of so-called enemy combatants, few U.S. troops have been disciplined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and no serious punishments have been administered, even in the cases of two detainees who died after U.S. guards beat them.
In an effort to assemble as complete a picture as possible of U.S. detention practices, reporters interviewed 66 former detainees, double-checked key elements of their accounts, spoke with U.S. soldiers who had served as detention-camp guards, and reviewed thousands of pages of records from Army courts-martial and human-rights reports.
The Bush administration refuses to release full records of detainee treatment, and no senior Bush administration official would agree to an on-the-record interview to discuss the findings.
20 months of brutality
The brutality at Bagram peaked in December 2002, when U.S. soldiers beat two Afghan detainees, Habibullah and Dilawar, to death as they hung by their wrists. Habibullah and Dilawar, like many Afghans, had only one name.
Dilawar died Dec. 10, seven days after Habibullah died. He'd been hit in his leg so many times that the tissue was "falling apart" and had "basically been pulpified," said then-Lt. Col. Elizabeth Rouse, the Air Force medical examiner who performed the autopsy.
The only U.S. officer reprimanded for the Bagram deaths is Army Capt. Christopher Beiring, who commanded the 377th Military Police Company from summer 2002 to spring 2003.
The soldier who faced the most serious charges, Spc. Willie Brand, said he hit Dilawar about 37 times, including 30 times in the flesh around the knees during one session in an isolation cell.
Brand, who had faced up to 11 years in prison, was reduced in rank to private — his only punishment — after he was found guilty of assaulting and maiming Dilawar.
Former detainees interviewed by reporters and by some human-rights groups said the violence was rampant from late 2001 until summer 2003 or later, at least 20 months.
Although they were at Bagram at different times and speak different languages, the 28 former detainees who told reporters they'd been abused there told strikingly similar stories.
Soldiers who served at Bagram starting in summer 2002 confirmed that detainees were struck routinely.
"Whether they got in trouble or not, everybody struck a detainee at some point," said Brian Cammack, a former specialist with the 377th Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit from Cincinnati. He was sentenced to three months in military confinement and a dishonorable discharge for hitting Habibullah.
The rules didn't apply
Spc. Jeremy Callaway, who admitted to striking about 12 detainees at Bagram, told military investigators in sworn testimony that he was uncomfortable following orders to "mentally and physically break the detainees." He didn't go into detail.
"I guess you can call it torture," said Callaway, who served in the 377th from August 2002 to January 2003.
Asked why someone would abuse a detainee, Callaway told military investigators: "Retribution for September 11, 2001."
But almost none of the detainees at Bagram had anything to do with the terrorist attacks.
Maj. Jeff Bovarnick, the former chief legal officer for operational law in Afghanistan and legal adviser at Bagram, said in a sworn statement that of 500 detainees he knew of who had passed through Bagram, about 10 were high-value targets, the military's term for senior terrorist operatives.
The mistreatment of detainees at Bagram, some legal experts said, may have been a violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war, which forbids violence against or humiliating treatment of detainees.
The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 imposes penalties up to death for such mistreatment.
But at Bagram, the rules didn't apply. In February 2002, President Bush issued an order denying suspected Taliban and al-Qaida detainees prisoner-of-war status. He also denied them basic Geneva protections known as Common Article Three, which sets a minimum standard for humane treatment.
In 2006, Bush pushed Congress to narrow the definition of a war crime under the War Crimes Act, making prosecution even more difficult.
Military police at Bagram had guidelines, Army Regulation 190-47, telling them they couldn't chain prisoners to doors or to the ceiling. They also had Army Regulation 190-8, which said humiliating detainees wasn't allowed.
But neither was applicable at Bagram, Bovarnick said.
Lack of accountability
The military-police rule book saying that enemy prisoners of war should be treated humanely didn't apply, he said, because the detainees weren't prisoners of war, according to the Bush administration's decision to withhold Geneva Conventions protections from suspected Taliban and al-Qaida detainees.
The military-police guide for the Army correctional system, which prohibits "securing a prisoner to a fixed object, except in emergencies," wasn't applicable, either, because Bagram wasn't a correctional facility, Bovarnick told investigators in 2004.
"I do not believe there is a document anywhere which states that ... either regulation applies, and there is clear guidance by the secretary of defense that detainees were not EPWs," enemy prisoners of war, Bovarnick said.
Compounding the problem, military-police guards and interrogators lacked proper training and received little instruction from commanders about how to do their jobs, according to sworn testimony taken during military investigations.
Senior Pentagon officials refused to be interviewed for this article. Col. Gary Keck, a Defense Department spokesman, released this statement:
"The Department of Defense policy is clear — we treat all detainees humanely. The United States operates safe, humane and professional detention operations for unlawful enemy combatants at war with this country."
No U.S. military officer above the rank of captain has been called to account for what happened at Bagram.
McClatchy Newspapers reporter Matthew Schofield contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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