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New Documents Show Marines Tortured Iraqis, Pentagon Admits 8 Detainees Died in U.S. Custody in Afghanistan

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Newly released military documents show U.S. Marines carried out mock executions, used electric shocks and burned prisoners inside Iraqi jails. And the Pentagon has admitted that at least eight detainees have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. We speak with representatives of the ACLU and Human Rights Watch who uncovered the abuses. [includes rush transcript]

More evidence has emerged that US troops in Iraq carried out extensive torture inside Iraqi jails. Newly released military * documents* show Marines carried out mock executions, used electric shocks and burned prisoners. The documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that at least 13 Marines were court-martialed for taking part in the abuse. Some were jailed. The names of the Marines were blacked out of the documents. None of there cases had been previously reported. In one case, three marines were convicted after they “ordered four juvenile Iraqi looters to kneel beside two shallow fighting holes and a pistol was discharged to conduct a mock execution”. The documents were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Meanwhile the Pentagon has admitted that at least eight detainees have died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. The admission came following a critical report by Human Rights Watch that assailed the military’s “culture of impunity” on prisoner abuse.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:We’re joined in our studio by John Sifton, Human Rights Watch researcher on Afghanistan. And on the telephone we’re joined by Amrit Singh, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. John Sifton, lets begin with you. Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the documents that you have obtained? You tried for a while to get documents on what happened in Afghanistan.

JOHN SIFTON Well, we asked for access to the prisons themselves and then also for documents, but we were unable to obtain them. The ACLU, which is a little bit better at this sort of thing than we are, was able to get a large, large number of documents released to them from the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly have you learned?

JOHN SIFTON Well, we’re still going through the documents. The ACLU is going through the documents. Journalists all over the world are going through these documents. They haven’t been gone over with a fine-toothed comb. But what we’re worried about is that early on, in 2002, before the Iraq war, there were instances of prison abuse and death in Afghanistan which were never adequately prosecuted or even investigated. And we believe that that failure in Afghanistan sort of set the tone, if you will, for Iraq, about whether you could get away with abusing detainees. The answer was yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And what have you learned about these eight detainees who were killed? Where were they held? What happened to them?

JOHN SIFTON Well, it’s all across the boards different. Some of them were killed in 2002, some were in 2003, and some as recently as September, 2004. It’s a variety of locations, some at Bagram air base, the central location, and some at forward operating bases, small military bases on the Pakistani border. We believe now that the — the Bagram air base is not a place where abuse takes place regularly. They’ve standardized their procedures there and detainees who are released from that facility no longer are complaining about mistreatment. It’s the forward operating bases, the ones along the Pakistani border where Special Forces operate that we have the most concern about now. And that’s where the most recent deaths have taken place.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you learn about the eight detainees who were killed. How were they killed?

JOHN SIFTON Well, you can never really know. Unfortunately, the bodies were mostly put in the ground. But two of them were subjected to an autopsy after their deaths at Bagram air base in December, 2002. The military pathologists in those cases found that they had been killed — that they had suffered a homicide as opposed to a natural death. We also know that the Navy and — I’m sorry, the Army Criminal Investigative Command considered an earlier death a, quote, murder; that’s what the documents showed that were released to the ACLU. But very little is known other than what families say about the bodies when they’re returned. You know, are there bruises on it? Things like that.

AMY GOODMAN: December, 2002, Moazzam Begg one of the hundreds of men who continues to be held at Guantanamo, much of the time in solitary, says he believes that the reason he’s being held is because he partially witnessed two murders of detainees at the Bagram air base. Could these be them?

JOHN SIFTON It’s possible that those two are the same, but there’s really no way to prove it at this point. One of the reasons we’re asking for accountability is not just for the sake of accountability, but also because trials, if they go forward, court-martials, will reveal a lot. The documents and the information that come out during trials point to other information, and then, you know, it’s like a snowball. And that’s why we’re calling for accountability. It’s not just about going after these troops on the ground, either. It’s about finding out what were the systematic failures in the Department of Defense that allowed the abuse to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Has anyone been charged?

JOHN SIFTON Well, there’ve been a score — scores and scores of abuse allegations. These eight deaths in Afghanistan. Only one person has been charged in the military, for dereliction of duty in connection with those December deaths. And then a C.I.A contractor was indicted in North Carolina court in May of this year. That man, we don’t know exactly why it was only him, and why the military wasn’t brought in in any way. So, it’s not an adequate response. The bottom line is, not enough people have prosecuted given the fact that literally scores of allegations have been made.

AMY GOODMAN: Moving from Afghanistan to Iraq, Amrit Singh, welcome to Democracy Now!.

AMRIT SINGH Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Amrit Singh, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, you have also learned, obtaining documents under the Freedom of Information Act, that in Iraq a number of U.S. soldiers — What is it, thirteen marines? — have been court-martialed for taking part in abuse of detainees. What exactly do you know at this point?

AMRIT SINGH Well, what we received was a summary chart relating to allegations that were, quote, unquote, substantiated. It’s hard to tell exactly what happened in each case in great detail. But we know that, dating back to April of 2003, there were specific documented incidents of torture and abuse by United States marines. And the incidents including: The ordering of four Iraqi juveniles to kneel while a pistol was discharged in a mock execution; the burning of a detainee’s hands by covering them in alcohol and igniting them; and the shocking of a detainee with an electric transformer, causing the detainee to, quote, dance as he was shocked. And all of these incidents happened at varying times in Iraq at places other than Abu Ghraib, dating back to April of 2003, before the alleged incidents at Abu Ghraib took place. There are also incidents — we also know of incidents that happened in Iraq after the Abu Ghraib incidents took place from documents turned over by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m just looking at an Associated Press piece that has come in out of San Diego, and it says: “A total of 130 American troops have been punished or charged in cases involving abuse of prisoners in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay,” this according to the Pentagon. More than a hundred cases involve the army, which has deployed the bulk of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and provides most of the guards at sites holding detainees. The others are marines and navy S.E.A.L.S. Is this consistent with what you’re learning, Amrit Singh?

AMRIT SINGH Well, I — I cannot speculate as to the total number of allegations or the total number of prosecutions. So far, we have received only a fraction of the documents relating to detainee abuse from the government. But 130 does seem to be on the small — It seems to be a small number given the sense we have of widespread abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: John Sifton, what is the punishment that soldiers receive?

JOHN SIFTON Well, that’s exactly the issue here. We’ve seen again and again that investigations have proceeded and people have been, quote, unquote, punished, but it’s not a prosecution. It’s not the same thing. You can have an administrative punishment, as little as an admonishment or a reprimand. You know, you can have your pay cut, you can have your rank reduced. Those aren’t court-martials. Those are merely administrative disciplinary proceedings.

AMY GOODMAN: And one of the things you just pointed out saying that these go back certainly before we saw the pictures at Abu Ghraib, and after the killings in Afghanistan moved forward, after all of this came out.

JOHN SIFTON Yes, and I think it’s the early cases which in many ways are the most important, because if you look at, for instance, one of the cases the ACLU uncovered of a murder that took place, the earliest known death of a detainee in U.S. custody. It took place — Four people, a captain and three sergeants, were implicated in a murder. According to the Post which talked to internal Pentagon people two days ago — the Washington Post — nothing happened in that case. Only one person received a disciplinary punishment.

AMY GOODMAN: This Afghanistan or Iraq?

JOHN SIFTON This is Afghanistan. This is before the Iraq war. Now, that’s — If you send that message to interrogators: 'Well, you killed a guy, but, you know, it's okay. Go on to Iraq where you are going to do interrogations at Abu Ghraib,’ then they’re going to commit more abuse. But it’s important to realize, we can’t just pin this all on the interrogators. You have to look at the Secretary of Defense’s office, and all the way down to the White House, to legal counsel, and ask: What did they do that allowed all of this to keep on happening?

AMY GOODMAN: In Iraq, Amrit Singh, the thirteen marines court-martialed, what do you know about specifically what they did in those cases?

AMRIT SINGH As I mentioned to you —

AMY GOODMAN:In addition to that one?

AMRIT SINGH We know only of the very broad summary descriptions of what the allegations against these individuals were. There — They include the mock executions, burning of a detainee’s hands, shocking a detainee with an electric transformer, taking — holding a pistol to the back of a detainee’s head while — while another marine took a picture. These are some of the more egregious examples of the kind of treatment that U.S. marines subjected detainees to.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you satisfied, and let me put this question to both of you starting with John Sifton, are you satisfied with the response, with the media coverage in this country, and with — and with the political leaders responding, both those in power, and the Democrats who are not in power?

JOHN SIFTON Well, there’s media response and then there’s media response. A lot of these deaths actually were reported. Carlotta Gall of The New York Times reported the two deaths over a year ago, well over a year ago. Just nothing really happened. We reported on abuse in Afghanistan; but we didn’t have pictures, so it didn’t have the Abu Ghraib effect. So, certainly, there’s been media coverage, it just hasn’t garnered much action. The issue now is whether all of these continuing allegations are going to lead anywhere and whether the Senate will resume hearings like they said they would. The question now is: Will the Senate Armed Forces Committee resume hearings into this or not?

AMY GOODMAN: What are Democrats doing about this? John Kerry did not make an issue of this in the campaign at all, that I can remember.

JOHN SIFTON Well, the Democrats, as everybody knows, are not in charge, but they can push. At the end of the day, though, I think that John McCain and Senator Warner, they can push the issue forward if they wish to. They were interested in pushing it forward this summer, so there’s no reason why they can’t push it forward again.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written a letter to Donald Rumsfeld?

JOHN SIFTON We’ve written a letter to Donald Rumsfeld, but the issue now is whether the Senate will actually sort of force — force the office of the Secretary of Defense to respond to these allegations. The C.I.A. is also implicated, and there are questions to be asked there.

AMRIT SINGH There are isolated attempts by Senators to ask questions of the government. Senator Leahy had wrote in response to some of the documents we received relating to abuse observed by the F.B.I. Senator Leahy wrote a letter to Robert Mueller asking for clarification as to those incidents of abuse. Senator Bingham has also written a letter to Donald Rumsfeld asking for clarification related to some of the abuse. The question, as John puts it, is whether there will be a coordinated attempt to really find out who was ultimately responsible for the abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Neil Lewis in today’s New York Times writes that: “Several former high-ranking military lawyers say they’re discussing ways to oppose President Bush’s nomination of Alberto Gonzales to be Attorney General, asserting that Gonzales’s supervision of legal memorandums that appeared to sanction harsh treatment of detainees, even torture, showed unsound legal judgment. Hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination are expected to begin next month. While Gonzales is expected to be confirmed, objections from former generals and admirals would be a setback and an embarrassment for him and the White House.” John Sifton, on Alberto Gonzales.

JOHN SIFTON Well, the Gonzales hearings will be an excellent opportunity to raise what involvement the office of the Secretary of Defense and the White House had in approving techniques which then sort of spilled over into more abusive techniques. Because it’s going to be very difficult, I think, for Gonzales to explain how he approved certain techniques and then sort of said: 'Well, I didn't know that that would spill over into other techniques.’ You can’t approve really harsh techniques and then assume the troops are just going to draw the line arbitrarily and not go and commit more egregious abuses. It was obvious that was going to happen. And, in a way, I think what needs to be asked is whether the White House pushed for that, indeed, to happen, in some kind of subtle way by encouraging people to use harsh techniques.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. If people want to see these documents online, where can they go?

AMRIT SINGH They go to, that’s torture 'f', 'o', 'i', 'a'.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you, Amrit Singh of the American Civil Liberties Union and John Sifton of Human Rights Watch. You can go to our website at and we will link to all the relevant links.

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