Two soldiers and an officer with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division
have told a human rights organization of systemic detainee abuse and human rights
violations at U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, recounting beatings, forced
physical exertion and psychological torture of prisoners, the group said.
A 30-page report by Human Rights Watch describes an Army captain's 17-month
effort to gain clear understanding of how U.S. soldiers were supposed to treat
detainees, and depicts his frustration with what he saw as widespread abuse
that the military's leadership failed to address. The Army officer made clear
that he believes low-ranking soldiers have been held responsible for abuse to
cover for officers who condoned it.
The report does not identify the two sergeants and a captain who gave the accounts,
although Capt. Ian Fishback has presented some of his allegations in a letter
to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Their statements included vivid allegations of violence against detainees
held at Forward Operating Base Mercury, outside Fallujah, shortly before the
notorious abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison began. The soldiers described incidents
similar to those reported in other parts of Iraq -- such as putting detainees
in stress positions, exercising them to the point of total exhaustion, and sleep
They also detailed regular attacks that left detainees with broken
bones -- including once when a detainee was hit with a metal bat -- and said
that detainees were sometimes piled into pyramids, a tactic seen in photographs
taken later at Abu Ghraib.
"Some days we would just get bored so we would have everyone sit in a
corner and then make them get in a pyramid," an unidentified sergeant who
worked at the base from August 2003 to April 2004 told Human Rights Watch. "This
was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did that for amusement."
And like soldiers accused at Abu Ghraib, these troops said that military intelligence
interrogators encouraged their actions, telling them to make sure the detainees
did not sleep or were physically exhausted so as to get them to talk.
"They were directed to get intel from them so we had to set the conditions
by banging on their cages, crashing them into the cages, kicking them, kicking
dirt, yelling," the soldier was quoted as saying. Later he described how
he and others beat the detainees. "But you gotta understand, this was the
norm. Everyone would just sweep it under the rug."
Army and Pentagon officials yesterday said they are investigating the allegations
as criminal cases and said they learned of the incidents just weeks ago when
the Fort Bragg captain's concerns surfaced. Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said
the Army began investigating as soon as it learned of the allegations.
Lt. Col. John Skinner, a Pentagon spokesman, severely criticized the report
and emphasized that the military has taken incidents of detainee abuse extremely
seriously since the Abu Ghraib scandal, changing policies and procedures to
prevent such mistreatment. There have been hundreds of criminal investigations
and more than a dozen major inquiries.
"This is another predictable report by an organization trying to advance
an agenda through the use of distortions and errors in fact," Skinner said.
"It's a shame they refuse to convey how seriously the military has investigated
all known credible allegations of detainee abuse and how we've looked at all
aspects of detention operations under a microscope. . . . Humane treatment has
always been the standard no matter how much certain organizations want people
to believe otherwise."
In addition to talking to Human Rights Watch, Fishback has made his concerns
known in a series of signed letters and memos sent to Capitol Hill. Fishback,
a West Point graduate who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq, wrote that no
one in his chain of command has been able to give him a clear explanation of
what humane treatment is, and he believes that U.S. soldiers have regularly
violated the Geneva Conventions by torturing detainees and taking family members
hostage as a means of coercion.
"Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers
from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees,"
Fishback wrote in a Sept. 16 letter to McCain, a member of the Armed Services
Committee and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. "I am certain that this
confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings,
broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion,
hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment."
Fishback, reached by telephone yesterday, declined to comment.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said yesterday
that the report again shows the need for an independent investigation into detainee
abuse, and for Congress to define how U.S. soldiers are to treat detainees in
their custody. "Even officers who wanted to behave honorably found it difficult
to do so because there was no clarity about what the rules are," Malinowski