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Blows that led to detainee's death were common practice, reservist says

FORT BLISS, Texas—An Army reservist accused of killing a detainee in Afghanistan told investigators that the blows that caused the man's death were commonly used to deal with uncooperative prisoners and that his superiors approved of the technique.

Other soldiers testified at a hearing here that they were taught to administer the so-called "compliance blows" in an Army course covering non-lethal tactics and that the blows became an accepted way of dealing with detainees who were considered "combative."

The statement from Pfc. Willie Brand and the testimony from his fellow soldiers provide new evidence that prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq may have been the result of interrogation and detention practices adopted for the war on terrorism.

U.S. officials have insisted that abuse at U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq was the work of a few rogue soldiers. But human rights groups have charged that President Bush's February 2002 directive saying the Geneva Conventions didn't apply to members of al-Qaida or Taliban fighters led to pervasive mistreatment, first in Afghanistan and later at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq.

Brand's statements were read aloud at a so-called Article 32 hearing intended to determine if he should be court-martialed in the December 2002 deaths of two prisoners at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul in Afghanistan. Among the 11 counts facing Brand is one charge of involuntary manslaughter and one charge of maiming in one death. He also faces multiple charges of maltreatment and assault in the deaths of both prisoners.

Army pathologists said the two detainees, identified as Habibullah and Dilawar, died as a result of repeated kneeings to their legs. The men died Dec. 4, 2002, and Dec. 10, 2002, respectively.

Brand, who's charged with involuntary manslaughter in Dilawar's death, said in a sworn statement read at the hearing that sharply kneeing a suspect in the legs was a common technique used to subdue prisoners. He said he'd used the technique to gain control of more than 20 detainees during his 10-and-a-half months of service in Afghanistan.

Brand, 26, who was assigned to the 377th Military Police Company out of Cincinnati, is the only soldier charged with manslaughter in the deaths. Another soldier from the 377th, Sgt. James Boland, faces assault charges.

But investigators have identified 26 other military police officers and interrogators who they say committed offenses ranging from assault to maltreatment in the case, including a military intelligence officer who later served at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq when abuses took place there.

Army investigators have recommended that the officer, Capt. Carolyn Wood, who was in charge of the Bagram Collection Point when Dilawar and Habibullah died, be charged with maltreatment, conspiracy and making a false official statement in connection with their deaths.

An Army investigation of abuse at Abu Ghraib also criticized Wood, who served with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, for failing "to implement the necessary checks and balances to prevent detainee abuse" there.

Wood declined to comment through a spokesman at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where she's assigned.

Brand's defense attorney, John P. Galligan, asked to question Wood during the hearing, which ended Wednesday. But the Army Reserve officer chairing the hearing, Col. Stephen Pence, said she couldn't be called because she had invoked her right against self-incrimination.

Pence, who in civilian life is the Republican lieutenant governor of Kentucky, will recommend to the base commander whether Brand should be court-martialed.

Galligan said Brand used the training he'd been given when dealing with the detainees and that the Army command is at least as culpable as his client. Brand "followed the SOP (standard operating procedure) that was in place," Galligan said.

Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Hawkins, who commanded Brand's platoon, said the unit had received two days of training in "peroneal strikes," or knee jabs, during a course at Fort Dix, N.J., before they were deployed.

Spokesmen at Fort Dix said they couldn't confirm what was covered in the course.

According to Army pathologists, Habibullah and Dilawar died after repeated blows to their legs. Both also were shackled to the ceiling for prolonged periods, sometimes with their hands chained at the level of their heads or higher.

Medical examiner Lt. Col. Kathleen Ingwersen said the forced immobility might have contributed to the blood clot that caused the 30-year-old Habibullah's heart to stop. According to an Army investigation, Habibullah was so badly hurt by repeated knee strikes that "even if he survived, both legs would have had to be amputated."

Lt. Col. Elizabeth Rouse, the pathologist who examined Dilawar, 35, testified via telephone that the severe beating might have aggravated a pre-existing heart condition. She said the tissue in Dilawar's legs had been so damaged by repeated blows that "it was essentially crumbling and falling apart."

Brand, who works as a private security guard in civilian life, attended the hearing, in uniform, but didn't speak.

In sworn statements made earlier to Army investigators and read aloud at the hearing, Brand said he'd received training in applying pressure points and control techniques at Fort Dix before being sent to Afghanistan during the summer of 2002.

He said the knee strike "was not procedure but was common practice because it worked."

Brand said he'd been trained to use "minimum force" when a detainee attacked or assaulted a guard. But when he got to Bagram, he said, "the standard changed and we did things differently."

Brand, who was demoted from specialist to private earlier this year, said an outgoing platoon of soldiers at Bagram trained him to use the knee strikes "as a matter of common practice."

Brand said he initially was uncomfortable with the move, which momentarily crushes a nerve in the leg and incapacitates a person with pain. But he said his commanders "saw this stuff and made no move to correct it, so I took it that the practice was tolerated or allowed."

Brand admitted he struck Habibullah four times in the thigh while the detainee was chained to the ceiling of an isolation cell. He said Habibullah had repeatedly tried to remove a hood covering his head by pinching it between his neck and arms.

The first blow didn't have much of an effect. Brand said he then "stabilized" Habibullah by holding his shirt and hitting him hard enough to lift his feet off the ground.

"It was morally wrong," Brand said. "But it was an SOP."

A few hours later, Habibullah, the brother of a former Taliban commander, lost consciousness. He died shortly after midnight on Dec. 4, 2002.

The next day, a part-time taxi driver named Dilawar was brought to the detention facility. According to investigative documents, Dilawar "was resistant to interrogation" and "eventually became combative."

Handcuffed, Dilawar was placed in an isolation cell and "his hands were stretched over his head to maintain him in a standing position." But even in that contorted posture, Dilawar was able to repeatedly mule-kick the door.

According to Brand's statement, he eventually got fed up with Dilawar's behavior and went into his cell, where he kneed him repeatedly in the legs as he hung from the ceiling.

"I told people I had to switch knees because my leg got tired," Brand said in the affidavit.

Army investigators have said that Brand wasn't alone in brutalizing Dilawar. Four interrogators are accused in the documents of kicking Dilawar in the groin and leg during the course of his interrogation, slamming him into walls and a table, forcing him to maintain painful contorted body positions during the interview and forcing water into his mouth until he couldn't breathe.

Other military police officers are accused of assaulting Dilawar and Habibullah in the documents. Spc. Brian Cammack testified at the hearing that another soldier in the platoon bragged that he had kneed Habibullah at least 50 times "and he deserved every one."

It wasn't clear whether charges would be brought against others in the case.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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