WASHINGTON—Ninety-eight detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan have died in U.S. custody since August 2002, and 34 of them were suspected or confirmed homicides, a human rights group reported Wednesday.
Only 12 cases have resulted in punishment of any kind, New York-based Human Rights First said in its report.
Taken together, the deaths reflect a pattern of systematic and widespread abuse by U.S. soldiers, CIA operatives and civilian contractors caused by vague policies governing interrogation procedures and a lax command atmosphere in which abuses are either encouraged or ignored, the group charged.
"People are dying in U.S. custody, and no one is being held to account," said Deborah Pearlstein, U.S. law and security program director at Human Rights First.
In close to half of the 98 cases that Human Rights First examined, the official cause of death remained undetermined or unannounced, the group said. At least eight of the homicides resulted from torture, the group concluded. The 128-page report was based on official Army documents, published accounts and interviews.
The Pentagon acknowledged that deaths in U.S. custody have occurred. But a spokesman rejected the report's findings.
"We fully investigate every detainee death no matter what the circumstances are to ensure that every aspect of detainee operations has been humane," said Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros. "The Department of Defense's policy has always been to treat detainees in our custody humanely. To state that the department has not held people accountable in cases of detainee mistreatment is not accurate."
Ballesteros said that the U.S. military has investigated more than 600 allegations of detainee abuse. Approximately 250 servicemen and women have been held accountable for their actions, he said.
"People have been sent to jail for detainee mistreatment," he said.
One of 20 questionable deaths profiled in the report is that of Dilar Dababa, a 45-year-old Iraqi who died of a blow to the head during an interrogation at a U.S. detention camp in Iraq in June 2003, according to a military autopsy report.
His body was covered with at least 22 bruises and 50 abrasions, most of them on his head and neck. He suffered bleeding in the brain and a fractured rib. Military investigators reported a year later that they were looking into Dababa's death, but no charges had been filed.
The most severe sentence handed down in any of the homicide cases was 25 years in jail, said Hani Shamsi, the primary author of the report. The harshest punishment for death resulting from torture was five months in prison.
Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer, who was convicted last month of negligent homicide after stuffing a former Iraqi general headfirst into a sleeping bag and suffocating him during a November 2003 interrogation, was given a reprimand, fined $6,000 and restricted in his movements for 60 days.
By contrast, former Cpl. Charles Graner Jr., is serving 10 years at Fort Leavenworth for abusing detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. His sentence was the steepest of nine Army reservists convicted of abusing Iraqis at the prison.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. David R. Irvine said U.S. military officers are ultimately responsible for the actions of the soldiers under their command, but almost none has been held accountable.
"It is my opinion that torture became a common practice in Iraq because generals and colonels and majors allowed it to occur, and even at times encouraged it," said Irvine, who taught interrogation and military law for 18 years. "Soldiers became torturers because their chain of command chose to look the other way."
Only one high-ranking officer, former Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, has been disciplined for prisoner abuse. She was reprimanded and demoted to colonel. Others have had recommendations for disciplinary action reversed by their superiors. One was Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who implemented many of the interrogation measures that led to abuse at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Abu Ghraib.
An Army investigation last year recommended that Miller be reprimanded for the abuse of a suspected al-Qaida terrorist at Guantanamo. But Gen. Bantz J. Craddock told reporters Tuesday that he reversed that recommendation because Miller didn't know about specific instances of abuse and hadn't broken any laws or military regulations.
Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen N. Xenakis, a former Army medical officer, said that a "burden of leadership is to ensure that high moral and ethical principles are maintained in even the most demanding situations."
The report can be read online at www.humanrightsfirst.info/pdf/06221-etn-hrf-dic-rep-web.pdf
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.