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Iraq: U.S. Probes Alleged Abuse Of Prisoners

  • Andrew Tully --> (file photo) The U.S. Army is investigating reports that U.S. military police abused Iraqi captives at a prison near Baghdad. General Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. deputy operations chief in Iraq, says he and his colleagues condemn any such activity, and stresses that the allegations are not representative of the actions of U.S. and other coalition forces in the country.

Washington, 30 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Photographs broadcast this week on an U.S. television news program ("60 Minutes II") show a man with his head covered by a hood and wires attached to his hands. He is also standing on a crate, and the narrator says the man was told that if he fell off the crate, he would be electrocuted.

Other photos show naked men, their heads also covered by hoods -- some standing, some stacked on top of one another in pyramid formations or forced into sexually suggestive poses -- as their American captors, including at least one woman, stand by smiling and laughing, occasionally giving the "thumbs up" signal of success.

"Any abuse, obviously, is a violation of the Geneva Convention. And if it is found that they [American military police] are abusing [prisoners], then there is always the potential that they're increasing the possibility for violence against their own people."
One of the soldiers implicated in the abuse reportedly wrote in an e-mail to his family in the United States that his unit had a style of interrogation that was successful in getting Iraqi prisoners to "break" -- that is, end their silences and answer the Americans' questions.

That same military policeman was not so bold when responding to the charges he faces. He complained that he had no training on the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners, and that his superiors gave his unit little support and no other guidance on how to perform its duties.

The case is not new. Kimmitt said on 28 April in Baghdad that an investigation of suspected abuse began in January after an American soldier reported the guards' behavior to his superiors and supported his accusation with photos. The general said this soldier could not in good conscience allow the abuse to continue.

A month ago, the U.S. Army in Baghdad said six military police guards faced court-martial on charges of abusing about 20 prisoners at Abu Ghurayb. The military has recommended disciplinary action against seven other U.S. officers who helped run the prison.

But the broadcast of the photographs brings into powerful focus the extent of the abuse that the prisoners are said to have suffered. At a 28 April briefing in Baghdad, Kimmitt said, "As a result of the criminal investigation, six military personnel have been charged with criminal offenses. The coalition takes all reports of detainee abuse seriously and all allegations of mistreatment are investigated. We are committed to treating all persons under coalition custody with dignity, respect, and humanity."

Interviewed for the news program airing the photographs, Kimmitt said he was disappointed in the behavior of the soldiers accused of the abuse. He added that the United States cannot ask opposing forces to treat U.S. troops humanely if Americans don't do the same.

But during the CBS interview, Kimmitt was emphatic that the behavior of the guards was not typical of all U.S. military police serving in Iraq. "What would I tell the people of Iraq? This is wrong, this is reprehensible, but this is not representative of the 150,000 soldiers that are over here. I'd say the same thing to the American people: Don't judge your army based on the actions of a few," Kimmitt said.

Amnesty International, the human rights group, says it has reports by Iraqis who have been released from American detention that they suffered abuse at the hands of their guards. This included beatings, exposure to loud music, sleep deprivation, and spending long periods in which their heads were covered by hoods.

But Amnesty did not say whether such practices were widespread. And another advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, says it has no evidence that U.S. guards routinely abuse captives.

Mark Garlasco, a senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch's New York office, said in an interview with RFE/RL, "We have not seen anything that would lead us to believe that there is a systemic problem in Iraq at the current time. That said, we do not have direct access to the prisons or the prisoners, and so we are relying solely upon second-source reporting that's coming basically out of media outlets. Is it possible that it's more widespread than we know? Certainly. But if we had heard anything, I'm certain we would have published something by now."

Garlasco said he had little sympathy for one guard's defense that he had no training on the Geneva Convention. He said every U.S. soldier, regardless of his duties, is told what to expect if he is captured by enemy forces. Therefore, he says, each soldier should know how act -- at least in general terms -- if the situation is reversed.

There is little doubt, according to Garlasco, that no U.S. soldier would be led to believe that the abuse shown in the photos is acceptable under international law.

Even if a military guard is not motivated by a desire to do right, Garlasco said, there is a compelling reason for him -- or her -- not to abuse prisoners.

"Any abuse, obviously, is a violation of the Geneva Convention. And if it is found that they [American military police] are abusing [prisoners], then there is always the potential that they're increasing the possibility for violence against their own people. It behooves the U.S. forces to follow the Geneva Convention," Garlasco said.

The Army has admitted that the American guards at Abu Ghurayb were not trained in Geneva Convention rules. And most were reservists -- part-time soldiers who didn't get the kind of specialized prisoner of war training given to regular army members.