Detainee Deaths: A Brief Overview
Since the start of the “war on terror,” roughly 100 detainees have died while in US custody. An as-yet-undetermined number of these deaths were likely homicides, resulting from the brutal treatment at the hands of military and CIA captors and interrogators. Many detainees, simply, were tortured to death. While there have been, in some of the most egregious cases, investigations into wrongdoing by US personnel, very few of these investigations have resulted in concrete punishment and accountability. A Human Rights First report on detainee deaths reads,
Of the 34 homicide cases so far identified by the military, investigators recommended criminal charges in fewer than two thirds, and charges were actually brought (based on decisions made by command) in less than half. While the CIA has been implicated in several deaths, not one CIA agent has faced a criminal charge. Crucially, among the worst cases in this list—those of detainees tortured to death—only half have resulted in punishment; the steepest sentence for anyone involved in a torture-related death: five months in jail.
The breakdown, according to Human Rights First, goes as such:
- 98 detainees died while in custody
- At least a third were victims of homicide at the hands of US captors
- At least 8, and as many as 12, were directly tortured to death
The Human Rights First report has much greater detail. Here is a brief summary of their findings.
Abed Hamed Mowhoush
Circumstances: Beaten over a period of days, stuffed into a sleeping bag, wrapped with electrical cord. Suffocated to death.
Outcome: A low-level officer was tried in connection with Mowhoush’s death. The sentence included a written reprimand, a fine, and 60 days of restricted movement (he could only travel between his home, work, and church).
Nagem Sadoon Hatab
Circumstances: Died in US custody. Medical examiner determined cause of death to be strangulation.
Outcome: No charges were filed because Hatab’s organs were rendered useless as evidence after having been left on an airport tarmac (in Baghdad) for hours and rotting. The throat bone that would have proven strangulation somehow went missing and was never found.
Circumstances: Over a period of several days, Jameel was beaten and subjected to various “stress positions.” Finally, he was tied by his hands to the top of his cell door, gagged, and died five minutes later. Army officers admitted that, in addition to this, Jameel had been “lifted to his feet by a baton held to his throat.”
Outcome: Army criminal investigators recommended charges against 11 soldiers. Army commanders declined to heed those recommendations. No charges were filed.
Circumstances: Was in US custody 72 hours before dying. An autopsy, conducted 3 weeks after his death, found, among other injuries, blunt force trauma and positional asphyxia, though the cause of death was listed as “undetermined”.
Outcome: As many as 3 Navy SEALS were charged with various crimes which included assault and detainee maltreatment among others, but did not include manslaughter or homicide. As of 2006, no other information had been given regarding these prosecutions.
Circumstances: Beaten by SEALs and CIA interrogators. Determinations of cause of death differ, according to US military medical examiners (who examined al-Jamadi five days after his death), the Red Cross (who conducted an autopsy three months later), and other forensic scientists who reviewed the autopsy results later. Contributing factors may have included the beatings, or the broken ribs, or the gunshot wound to his spleen, or the way al-Jamadi was suspended from a window, “as in a crucifixion” according to one pathologist.
Outcome: 10 Navy personnel were accused of being involved in al-Jamadi’s death. 9 were given nonjudicial punishments. 1 was charged with assault, dereliction of duty, making false statements and conduct unbecoming. He was acquitted of all charges. No charges were brought against any CIA personnel involved.
Circumstances: 3 days after voluntarily turning himself in to US forces (he had heard they were looking for him), Wali died from beatings suffered at the hands of a CIA contractor.
Outcome: The contractor was indicted by a federal grand jury on four counts of assault in 2004. As of 2006, the case was “moving toward trial”. (Note: The contractor was eventually found guilty and sentenced to 8½ years in prison in 2007.
Circumstances: Beaten repeatedly, and savagely, and shackled to the ceiling where he was beaten some more. Died chained to the ceiling. An autopsy found he had died from an embolism.
Outcome: Army criminal investigators initially did not recommend any charges because so many people had been involved and because evidence had been mishandled (apparently, a sample of Habibullah’s blood was kept in a butter dish in the fridge of an investigator’s office). Only after the case became public, two years later, and in response to general outcries of protest, did the military recommend charges against 27 soldiers. Of those 27, 12 were prosecuted. Of those 12, only four were given jail time. The longest jail term given was five months.
Circumstances: Much the same as Habibullah, Dilawar was beaten repeatedly and shackled to the ceiling. In his case, the autopsy report concluded cause of death to be homicide, finding extensive evidence of massive physical damage, particularly to his legs.
Outcome: No charges were brought until a public outcry in conjunction with the death of Habibullah. Fifteen of the soldiers charged in Habibullah’s death with also charged in connection with Dilawar’s death. The results are above.
Sajid Kadhim Bori al-Bawi
Circumstances: After US troops stormed his home, his family were bound on the floor while soldiers questioned al-Bawi. According to the family, shots were fired, and the US officials said they were arresting al-Bawi and left. The family then found al-Bawi dead, hidden behind a refrigerator and under a mattress.
Outcome: No charges were filed against anybody, despite evidence that US accounts of the incident, that al-Bawi was shot in self-defense, hold little water. The criminal investigation took 4 hours.
Obeed Hethere Radad
Circumstances: Radad was shot by his interrogator, while restrained in a cell, for “fiddling” with his restraints.
Outcome: After a white-washed administrative investigation which concluded the death wasn’t really the interrogator’s fault because the base guidelines on when you could shoot restrained detainees were insufficiently clear. A criminal investigation was conducted later, but the interrogator asked for and received a discharge before it concluded. The criminal investigation eventually recommended the interrogator be charged with murder. No charges were ever filed.
Circumstances: Sayari was shot by US Special Forces after being detained on the side of a road in Afghanistan. US soldiers claimed that Sayari, while in custody, had lunged for a AK-47 rifle and aimed it at the soldiers, at which point they opened fire. Evidence collected at the scene by a military intelligence sergeant, however, contradicted this claim and seemed to show that Sayari had been shot while clutching prayer beads, with his hands over his head. Also, there was no AK-47. The Special Forces captain ordered the sergeant to destroy evidence and an administrative investigation found the shooting justified.
Outcome: After the administrative investigation concluded, the sergeant contacted criminal investigators with his findings. A criminal investigation recommended charges of conspiracy and murder. None of these charges were filed, though the Special Forces captain was charged with destroying evidence. None of the other soldiers who murdered Sayari, nor the administrative investigators who white-washed the event, were held accountable.
Circumstances: US soldiers arrested Hassoun and his cousin in Baghdad, drove them to a bridge over the Tigris river, and forced them to jump. Hassoun drowned in the river. The soldiers and their commanders proceeded to lie to investigators in an attempt to cover up the incident, which was not the first of its kind.
Outcome: Two soldiers pled guilty to assault. One served 45 days in prison, the other six months. No other charges were filed against any soldiers involved (though two were given nonjudicial punishments), nor the commanders who attempted to cover it up (though three received reprimands, while being allowed to retain their commands).
The Human Rights First report found, aside from these cases of homicide, 48 cases of undetermined or unannounced causes of death. In many of these cases, Human Rights First found that while the cause of death was not determined, injuries consistent with physical abuse and/or harsh detention were present. As there was no specific evidence of wrongdoing in these cases, and given the time that has passed, it is unlikely anyone will be held accountable.
While the Human Rights First report deals specifically with those deaths determined to be homicides by military investigators and forensic pathologists, they may likely prove only the most visible cases of detainee homicide. Additionally, it appears as they only detail deaths which occurred at US military facilities or involving US military personnel. Detainee deaths at the hands of CIA captors and interrogators are far less visible. Reports in the media give the suggestion that the problem may be much more widespread.
For example: at the “Salt Pit,” a CIA-operated prison north of Kabul, Afghanistan, a detainee was left naked and chained to the floor, exposed to the elements, overnight. He died of hypothermia, according to this article by the Washington Post. There are also unconfirmed reports of additional detainee deaths at Bagram Air Force Base.
In the Press
- John Sifton, who was involved in the Human Rights First report, blogs at the Daily Beast.
- Glenn Greenwald blogs at Salon.
- Craig Pyes, writing for the Crimes of War Project, goes into detail regarding US cover-ups of torture deaths in Afghanistan.
- Jason Leopold, at the Public Record, write about the connection between Bush administration policies and detainee deaths.
- Andy Worthington details 10 homicides that occurred in US prisons in Afghanistan.
- The ACLU has a listing of autopsy reports for detainee deaths. The reports can be downloaded as PDFs.