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Afghanistan: HRW Urges U.S. To 'Get Serious' About Detainee Abuse After New Revelations

The U.S. Army says eight detainees have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001, at least two more than had previously been reported. The announcement came after the international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it had uncovered three new cases of detainee deaths in U.S. military facilities in Afghanistan. The rights group says it is time for the United States to "get serious" about prosecuting soldiers implicated in prisoner deaths or mistreatment.

Prague, 14 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- HRW charged yesterday that the United States is failing to bring to justice those U.S. soldiers involved in prisoner abuses in Afghanistan.

The group said it has evidence of three new cases of detainee deaths in Afghanistan. In an open letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, HRW said the failure to investigate and prosecute such abuses has created a culture of impunity among some interrogators and has allowed abuse to spread.

Following the release of the HRW letter, the U.S. Army said there have been investigations into the deaths of eight detainees who had been in U.S. military custody in Afghanistan. That is two more than the U.S. had previously disclosed.

Brad Adams is Asia division director for Human Rights Watch. He said he believes Washington is still not revealing all it can about the abuses.
"These are just the unclassified documents that were released. We don't know what's in the heavily classified documents that might talk about more abuses. We haven't -- and the ACLU hasn't -- had time to go through all these documents yet. This is just what we've found thus far."

"It really is time for the United States to come completely clean about the number of deaths," Adams said. "We keep getting new figures every time someone like us or the [American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)] comes out with material -- they drip out a little bit more information. So we are not reassured by that. It's good that they put more information out, but we are reassured that this is the whole story. They have not had the position since the beginning of announcing deaths immediately and initiating investigations on their own. They're only doing this under pressure "

In total, Adams said, HRW is seeking answers to the deaths of six Afghan detainees and numerous claims of torture and mistreatment. Adams claimed that four of the deaths are "known cases of murder or manslaughter."

Chris Grey, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, said yesterday that investigations into at least three of the Afghan deaths are ongoing.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel John Skinner, is quoted by AP as saying many of the investigations have determined that detainees died due to natural causes or because of injuries suffered before their capture.

The U.S. military has charged two people in connection with detainee abuse in Afghanistan and has recommended 28 other people for prosecution in connection with deaths at Bagram air base near Kabul.

The two new cases disclosed by the U.S. Army include the death in November 2003 of a detainee identified as A. Wahid and the death of a person detained by U.S. soldiers in the village of Wazi in January 2003.

HRW said it has uncovered three new cases -- the suspected murder of a detainee by four U.S. military personnel in 2002; the death of an Afghan army soldier mistakenly arrested with seven others in March 2003; and the death of an Afghan man arrested in September during a raid at his home near Khost.

HRW said the new cases came to light after a request made by the ACLU.

"These new cases are from the government's own files," Adams said. "A Freedom of Information Act request was made by the American Civil Liberties Union -- and we have to give credit to them for making it -- and 11,000 pages of documents were released. And these are just the unclassified documents that were released. We don't know what's in the heavily classified documents that might talk about more abuses. We haven't -- and the ACLU hasn't -- had time to go through all these documents yet. This is just what we've found thus far."

Mohammad Farid Hamidi, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), told RFE/RL that the commission has often expressed concern about the deaths of detainees in U.S. custody.

"The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission hasn't received any response in regard to its request to monitor the work of [coalition] forces and for the results of the investigation [about prisoners abuses] to made available for the people and the government of Afghanistan," Hamidi said.

Adams said HRW continues to receive reports that some U.S. forces based in Afghanistan are mistreating people in detention.

"It ranges from very abusive practices, including beatings, to things like sleep deprivation, forcing people to stand for long periods of time. And we really don't understand why this is still happening," Adams said. "There has been so much publicity about torture by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, one would have thought that the orders would have come down to end these practices completely. But it seems that the Pentagon is trying to push their interrogators to get information, and the interrogators are using tactics that are not permitted."

HRW has urged Rumsfeld to speed the investigations and prosecution of personnel and officials implicated in prisoner deaths and mistreatment.

Hamidi from the Independent Human Rights Commission said U.S. forces based in Afghanistan should be more transparent about their investigations.

"This issue is causing concern among the people of Afghanistan and also for the Independent Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan," Hamidi said. "At the same time, it is a blow to the reputation and credibility of the coalition forces who are helping the Afghan government and people in the fight against terrorism. We want the activities of these forces to be transparent and for people to be informed about developments and investigations in that regard. The fight against terrorism should by no mean justify human rights abuses."

In May, the U.S. Army ordered a review of all coalition detention centers in Afghanistan, following the Abu Ghurayb prison scandal in Iraq and reports of prisoner mistreatment in Afghanistan.

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Pamela Keeton said the brigadier general who carried out the review found no evidence of abuse, or of leaders who condoned such behavior. She said any deficiencies found have been corrected.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.