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Detainee abuse routine at U.S. bases in Afghanistan

MARK WILSON / GETTY IMAGES
American soldiers herded the detainees into holding pens of razor-sharp concertina wire, the kind that's used to corral livestock.

The guards kicked, kneed and punched many of the men until they collapsed in pain. U.S. troops shackled and dragged other detainees to small isolation rooms, then hung them by their wrists from chains dangling from the wire mesh ceiling.

Former guards and detainees whom McClatchy interviewed said Bagram was a center of systematic brutality for at least 20 months, starting in late 2001. Yet the soldiers responsible have escaped serious punishment.

The public outcry in the United States and abroad has focused on detainee abuse at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but sadistic violence first appeared at Bagram, north of Kabul, and at a similar U.S. internment camp at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.

"I was punched and kicked at Bagram. . . . At Bagram, when they took a man to interrogation at night, the next morning we would see him brought out on a stretcher looking almost dead," said Aminullah, an Afghan who was held there for a little more than three months. "But at Guantánamo, there were rules, there was law."

Nazar Chaman Gul, an Afghan who was held at Bagram for more than three months in 2003, said he was beaten about every five days. American soldiers would walk into the pen where he slept on the floor and ram their combat boots into his back and stomach, Gul said. "Two or three of them would come in suddenly, tie my hands and beat me," he said.

When the kicking started, Gul said, he'd cry out, "I am not a terrorist," then beg God for mercy. Mercy was slow in coming. He was shipped to Guantánamo around the late summer of 2003 and imprisoned there for more than three years.

According to Afghan officials and a review of his case, Gul wasn't a member of al Qaeda or of the extremist Taliban regime that ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. At the time he was detained, he was working as a fuel depot guard for the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

When U.S. soldiers raided the house he was visiting, acting on a tip from a tribal rival who was seeking revenge against another man, they apparently confused Gul with a militant with a similar name — who was also imprisoned at Guantánamo, according to an Afghan intelligence official and Gul's American lawyer.

The eight-month McClatchy investigation found a pattern of abuse that continued for years. The abuse of detainees at Bagram has been reported by U.S. media organizations, in particular The New York Times, which broke several developments in the story. But the extent of the mistreatment, and that it eclipsed the alleged abuse at Guantánamo, hasn't previously been revealed.

Guards said they routinely beat their prisoners to retaliate for al Qaeda's 9-11 attacks, unaware that the vast majority of the detainees had little or no connection to al Qaeda.

Former detainees at Bagram and Kandahar said they were beaten regularly. Of the 41 former Bagram detainees whom McClatchy interviewed, 28 said that guards or interrogators had assaulted them. Only eight of those men said they were beaten at Guantánamo Bay.

Because President Bush loosened or eliminated the rules governing the treatment of so-called enemy combatants, however, few U.S. troops have been disciplined under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and no serious punishments have been administered, even in the cases of two detainees who died after American guards beat them.

In an effort to assemble as complete a picture as possible of U.S. detention practices, McClatchy reporters interviewed 66 former detainees, double-checked key elements of their accounts, spoke with U.S. soldiers who'd served as detention camp guards and reviewed thousands of pages of records from Army courts-martial and human rights reports.

The Bush administration refuses to release full records of detainee treatment in the war on terrorism, and no senior Bush administration official would agree to an on-the-record interview to discuss McClatchy's findings.

The most violent of the major U.S. detention centers, the McClatchy investigation found, was Bagram, an old Soviet airstrip about 30 miles outside Kabul. The worst period at Bagram was the seven months from the summer of 2002 to spring of 2003, when interrogators there used techniques that when repeated later at Abu Ghraib led to wholesale abuses.

New detainees were shoved to the floor of a cavernous warehouse, a former Soviet aircraft machine shop that stayed dim all day, and kept in pens where they weren't allowed to speak or look at guards.

The Afghan government initially based a group of intelligence officers at Bagram, but they were pushed out. Mohammed Arif Sarwari, the head of Afghanistan's national security directorate from late 2001 to 2003, said he got a letter from U.S. commanders in mid-2002 telling him to get his men out of Bagram.

Sarwari thought that was a bad sign: The Americans, he thought, were creating an island with no one to watch over them.

"I said I didn't want to be involved with what they were doing at Bagram — who they were arresting or what they were doing with them," he said in an interview in Kabul.

The rate of reported abuse was higher among men who were held at the U.S. camp at Kandahar Airfield. Thirty-two out of 42 men held there whom McClatchy interviewed claimed that they were knocked to the ground or slapped about. But former detainees said the violence at Bagram was much harsher.

The brutality at Bagram peaked in December 2002, when U.S. soldiers beat two Afghan detainees, Habibullah and Dilawar, to death as they hung by their wrists.

Dilawar died on Dec. 10, seven days after Habibullah died. He'd been hit in his leg so many times that the tissue was "falling apart" and had "basically been pulpified," said then-Lt. Col. Elizabeth Rouse, the Air Force medical examiner who performed the autopsy on him.

Had Dilawar lived, Rouse said in sworn testimony, "I believe the injury to the legs are so extensive that it would have required amputation."

After Habibullah died, a legal officer for U.S. forces in Afghanistan asked two military police guards at Bagram to demonstrate how they'd chained detainees' wrists above their heads in a small plywood isolation cell.

"Frankly, it didn't look good," Maj. Jeff Bovarnick, the legal adviser for the Bagram detention center from November 2002 to June 2003, said during a military investigation hearing in June 2005.

"This guy is chained up and has a hood on his head," Bovarnick continued. "The two MPs that were demonstrating this took about five minutes to get everything hook(ed) up; and I was thinking to myself, if this was a combative detainee, it must have been a real struggle for them to get him to comply, and the things they must have been doing to make him comply."

The only American officer who's been reprimanded for the deaths of Habibullah and Dilawar is Army Capt. Christopher Beiring, who commanded the 377th Military Police Company from the summer of 2002 to the spring of 2003.

Beiring told investigators that he'd received no formal training in leading a military police company, "just the correspondence courses and on-the-job training."

Then-Lt. Col. Thomas S. Berg, the Army lawyer who investigated Beiring in the deaths of Habibullah and Dilawar, argued that: "The government failed to present any evidence of what are 'approved tactics, techniques and procedures in detainee operations.' "

On Berg's recommendation, the charges against Beiring were dropped, and he was given a letter of reprimand.

"It's extremely hard to wage war with so many undefined rules and roles," Beiring said in a phone interview with McClatchy. "It was very crazy."

The commander of the military intelligence section that worked alongside Beiring's military police company at Bagram, Capt. Carolyn Wood, declined to comment.

The soldier who faced the most serious charges, Spc. Willie Brand, admitted that he hit Dilawar about 37 times, including some 30 times in the flesh around the knees during one session in an isolation cell.

Brand, who faced up to 11 years in prison, was reduced in rank to private — his only punishment — after he was found guilty of assaulting and maiming Dilawar.

'EVERYBODY STRUCK A DETAINEE'

U.S. soldiers' testimony in military investigations after the deaths of Habibullah and Dilawar suggested that detainee abuse at Bagram occurred from the summer of 2002 to spring of 2003, a period of about seven months.

Soldiers who served at Bagram before that time said detainees were never beaten. Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine Reserves officer who worked there from December 2001 to April 2002, said in an interview that none of the soldiers or American operatives he knew had resorted to abusing detainees.

An Army interrogator who was based at Bagram in the spring of 2002 and later wrote a book under the pseudonym of Chris Mackey for security reasons, said in an e-mail exchange that while soldiers pushed the limits — such as using stress positions and sleep deprivation — he never saw or heard of detainees getting beaten.

Former detainees interviewed by McClatchy and by some human rights groups, however, claimed that the violence was rampant from late 2001 until the summer of 2003 or later, at least 20 months.

Although they were at Bagram at different times and speak different languages, the 28 former detainees who told McClatchy that they'd been abused there told strikingly similar stories:

  • Bashir Ahmad, a Pakistani who fought with the Taliban, said that in the late spring or summer of 2003, U.S. troops would chain him to the ceiling by his hands or feet. "Then they would punch me or hit me with a wood rod," he said.
  • Brahim Yadel, a French citizen, said he was punched and slapped during interrogations at Bagram in December 2001.
  • Moazzem Begg, a British citizen, said he was assaulted regularly at Bagram for most of 2002, until he was transferred to Guantánamo in January 2003.
  • Akhtar Mohammed, an Afghan, said that at Bagram during the spring of 2003, "when they moved me to the interrogation room they covered my eyes, and took me up steep stairs. I always fell on the ground. And when I fell down, they punched and kicked me."
  • Abdul Haleem, a Pakistani, said that U.S. soldiers threw him to the ground at Bagram in 2003 and kicked him in the head, "like they were playing soccer."
  • Adel al Zamel, a Kuwaiti, said guards frequently waved sticks at him and threatened to rape him at Bagram during the spring of 2002. During an interview in Kuwait City, Zamel shook his head and said he remembered hearing detainees being beaten and "the cries from the interrogation room" at Bagram.

He wasn't the only person to report sexual humiliation.

Sgt. Selena Salcedo, a U.S. military intelligence officer, said that sometime between August 2002 and February 2003 she saw another interrogator, Pfc. Damien Corsetti, pull down the pants of a detainee and leave his genitals exposed.

In a 2005 sworn statement in the court-martial of Corsetti, she said she'd left the room and that when she'd returned the detainee was bent over a table and Corsetti was waving a plastic bottle near his buttocks. She said she didn't know whether the detainee had been raped.

Corsetti was acquitted of any wrongdoing. He didn't respond to a request for comment submitted through his attorney. Salcedo pleaded guilty to kicking a detainee — Dilawar — and grabbing his ears during a December 2002 interrogation.

Soldiers who served at Bagram starting in the summer of 2002 confirmed that detainees there were struck routinely.

"Whether they got in trouble or not, everybody struck a detainee at some point," said Brian Cammack, a former specialist with the 377th Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit from Cincinnati. He was sentenced to three months in military confinement and a dishonorable discharge for hitting Habibullah.

Spc. Jeremy Callaway, who admitted to striking about 12 detainees at Bagram, told military investigators in sworn testimony that he was uncomfortable following orders to "mentally and physically break the detainees." He didn't go into detail.

"I guess you can call it torture," said Callaway, who served in the 377th from August 2002 to January 2003.

Many human rights experts say the U.S. military began cracking down on detainee abuse at Bagram in 2004, in response to the public outcry over pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

RETRIBUTION FOR 9-11

Asked why someone would abuse a detainee, Callaway told military investigators: "Retribution for September 11, 2001."

When detainees first had their hoods removed on arriving at Bagram, looming behind them was a large American flag and insignia of the New York Police Department, a reminder of Sept. 11.

Almost none of the detainees at Bagram, however, had anything to do with the terrorist attacks.

Bovarnick, the former chief legal officer for operational law in Afghanistan and Bagram legal adviser, said in a sworn statement that of some 500 detainees he knew of who'd passed through Bagram, only about 10 were high-value targets, the military's term for senior terrorist operatives.

That hardly mattered.

Khaled al Asmr, a tall, gaunt Jordanian, was hauled off a U.S. military cargo plane at Bagram in early 2002. Flown in from Pakistan in heavy shackles and with a hood on his head, he was accused of being an al Qaeda operative with possible connections to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Standing in an interrogation room, Asmr said, he'd already been punched in the face several times by American guards. Two Americans walked into the room, wearing civilian clothes. They pulled out pistols and held them to either side of his head as a third American man entered and walked up to Asmr, according to his account.

The third man leaned toward Asmr's face and whispered, his breath warm, "I am here to save you from these people, but you must tell me you are al Qaeda."

Asmr, who told his story to a McClatchy reporter in Jordan, was declared no longer an enemy combatant after a 2004 U.S. military tribunal at Guantánamo. He said he'd known some al Qaeda leaders, but that was more than 15 years earlier, during the U.S.-backed Afghan uprising against the Soviets.

Nazar Gul was of even less intelligence value. None of the Afghan security or intelligence officials whom McClatchy interviewed said they'd heard of Gul, making it unlikely that he was the dangerous insurgent the U.S. said he was.

Gul's American attorney, Ruben L. Iniguez, went to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2006 to check the details of his story of working as a guard for the Afghan government, and later said in sworn court filings — which included videotaped testimony by witnesses — and in an interview with McClatchy that every fact checked out.

A LAWLESS PLACE

The mistreatment of detainees at Bagram, some legal experts said, may have been a violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, which forbids violence against or humiliating treatment of detainees.

The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 imposes penalties up to death for such mistreatment.

At Bagram, however, the rules didn't apply. In February 2002, President Bush issued an order denying suspected Taliban and al Qaeda detainees prisoner-of-war status. He also denied them basic Geneva protections known as Common Article Three, which sets a minimum standard for humane treatment.

Without those parameters, it's difficult to say what acts were or were not war crimes, said Charles Garraway, a former colonel and legal adviser for the British army and a leading international expert on military law.

Bush's order made it hard to prosecute soldiers for breaking such rules under the military's basic law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in large part because defense attorneys could claim that troops on the ground didn't know what was allowed.

In sweeping aside Common Article Three, the Bush administration created an environment in which abuse such as that at Bagram was more likely, said Garraway, a former professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

"I think it's completely predictable, because you no longer have standards," he said.

In 2006, Bush pushed Congress to narrow the definition of a war crime under the War Crimes Act, making prosecution even more difficult.

UNTRAINED, UNDISCIPLINED

The military police at Bagram had guidelines, Army Regulation 190-47, telling them they couldn't chain prisoners to doors or to the ceiling. They also had Army Regulation 190-8, which said that humiliating detainees wasn't allowed.

Neither was applicable at Bagram, however, said Bovarnick, the former senior legal officer for the installation.

The military police rulebook saying that enemy prisoners of war should be treated humanely didn't apply, he said, because the detainees weren't prisoners of war, according to the Bush administration's decision to withhold Geneva Convention protections from suspected Taliban and al Qaeda detainees.

The military police guide for the Army correctional system, which prohibits "securing a prisoner to a fixed object, except in emergencies," wasn't applicable, either, because Bagram wasn't a correctional facility, Bovarnick told investigators in 2004.

"I do not believe there is a document anywhere which states that . . . either regulation applies, and there is clear guidance by the secretary of defense that detainees were not EPWs," enemy prisoners of war, Bovarnick said.

Compounding the problem, military police guards and interrogators lacked proper training and received little instruction from commanders about how to do their jobs, according to sworn testimony taken during military investigations and interviews by McClatchy.

The guards who worked there from the summer of 2002 to the spring of 2003 were all reservists from the 377th Military Police Company, based in Cincinnati, and many of the military intelligence interrogators serving at the same time were from the Utah Army National Guard.

Good order and discipline had evaporated.

1st Sgt. Betty Jones said during a 2004 interview with investigators that a fellow military police sergeant and his men on several occasions were "drunk to the point that they could not go to duty."

Salcedo, the military intelligence soldier, said in her statement at Corsetti's court-martial that she and others drank alcohol during their time at Bagram, and at one point smoked hashish on the roof of a building.

Cammack told McClatchy that one of his sergeants drove a John Deere Gator, a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle, to a nearby town and traded with locals for bottles of vodka.

"Really, nobody was in charge . . . the leadership did nothing to help us. If we had any questions, it was pretty much 'figure it out on your own,' " Cammack said. "When you asked about protocol they said it's a work in progress."

PENTAGON RESPONSE

Senior Pentagon officials refused to be interviewed for this article. In response to a series of questions and interview requests, Col. Gary Keck, a Defense Department spokesman, released this statement:

"The Department of Defense policy is clear — we treat all detainees humanely. The United States operates safe, humane and professional detention operations for unlawful enemy combatants at war with this country."

No U.S. military officer above the rank of captain has been called to account for what happened at Bagram.

The head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan when prisoners were being abused at Bagram, then-Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, declined an interview request. McNeill was later made the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, a post he held until recently.

His predecessor, then-Maj. Gen. Franklin L. "Buster" Hagenbeck, said in an e-mail exchange that from late 2001 to 2002, his attention wasn't on detainee facilities.

"Unfortunately, I have nothing to add to your reporting . . . I was focused on battling the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as reconstruction and coordinating with the nascent Afghan government," Hagenbeck wrote. "I do not personally know of any abuses while I was there, and we focused on treating all with dignity and respect — even, and perhaps especially, those persons in our custody."

Hagenbeck is now the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Capt. Carolyn Wood, who led the interrogators at Bagram, was sent to Abu Ghraib in the summer of 2003 and assumed control of interrogation operations there that August.

A military investigation that followed the Abu Ghraib scandal — known as the "Fay-Jones Report" for the two generals who authored it — found that from July 2003 to February of 2004, 27 military intelligence personnel there allegedly encouraged or condoned the abuse of detainees, violated established interrogation procedures or participated in abuse themselves.

The abuse resembled what former Bagram detainees described.

A key factor in serious cases of abuse at Abu Ghraib, the report found, was the construction of isolation areas, a move requested by Wood, who said that "based on her experience" such facilities made it easier to extract information from detainees.

Wood remains an active-duty military intelligence officer.




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