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September 24, 2005

Whistleblowers Describe Routine, Severe Abuse

by Jim Lobe

As a military jury in Texas considers the fate of Lynndie England, the low-ranking reservist pictured in the notorious photos of the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in late 2003, two sergeants and a captain in one of the U.S. Army's most decorated combat units have come forward with accounts of routine, systematic and often severe beatings committed against detainees at a base near Fallujah from 2003 through 2004.

According to their testimony, featured in a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), beatings and other forms of torture were often either ordered or approved by superior officers and took place on virtually a daily basis. The soldiers, all of whom had also been deployed to Afghanistan before coming to Iraq, testified that the same techniques were used in both countries.

The beatings were so severe that they resulted in broken bones "every other week" at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mercury, where detainees would ordinarily be held for three or four days before being transferred to Abu Ghraib. In one case, an Army cook broke the leg of a detainee with a metal baseball bat, according to one of the sergeants quoted in the report, entitled "Leadership Failure."

Residents of Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold since the 2003 invasion, referred to the unit as "The Murderous Maniacs," because of their treatment of detainees, according to the report.

Although none of the three soldiers has been deployed to Iraq this year, they all said they believed that practices they witnessed at FOB Mercury continue, according to the report.

The three – all active-duty members of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the Army 82nd Airborne Division – said that they had repeatedly sought guidance up the chain of command on the applicability of the Geneva Conventions or other rules to regarding the appropriate treatment of detainees in Iraq, but to no avail.

The captain, referred to as "Officer C" in the report, said he had made persistent efforts over 17 months to raise concerns about the abuses and obtain clearer rules about the treatment of detainees but was consistently told by higher-ups to ignore abuses and to "consider your career."

"In many cases, he was encouraged to keep his concerns quiet; his brigade commander, for example, rebuffed him when he asked for an investigation into these allegations of abuse," according to the report. Only when he began taking his concerns to members of Congress, according to the report, did the Army agree to investigate his complaints.

However, "just days before the publication of this report he was told that he would not be granted a pass to meet on his day off with staff members of U.S. Senators John McCain and John Warner," who, along with two other Republican senators, have sponsored legislation that would require the Pentagon to abide by the Geneva Conventions and the Army Field Manual in its treatment of all detainees.

Their effort has so far been frustrated by opposition from the George W. Bush administration, notably Vice President Dick Cheney, who has personally lobbied against the provision, and the Republican leadership in Congress.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke nearly 18 months ago, the Bush administration claimed that only a handful of poorly trained reservists were responsible. But in the intervening months, hundreds of other cases of abuse in both Iraq and Afghanistan have come to light through the release of U.S. government documents, reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross, media reports, and detainee accounts.

While the Pentagon has initiated investigations, administrative hearings and, in a few cases, courts-martial, they have been confined mostly to low-ranking personnel, permitting the administration to claim that whatever abuses have taken place were isolated or spontaneous.

But the firsthand accounts by the three soldiers, according to HRW, "suggest that the mistreatment of prisoners by the U.S. military is even more widespread than has been acknowledged to date, including among troops belonging to some of the best trained, most decorated and highly respected units in the U.S. Army."

Suspected insurgents, according to the testimonies, were called PUCs, for "Persons Under Control," to distinguish them from prisoners of war, or POWs, a practice that first began in Afghanistan after the Pentagon announced that it did not consider detainees captured there subject to the protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions for POWs.

PUCs were held in tents at FOB Mercury that were surrounded by concertina wire and were routinely subjected to abusive techniques that included "smoking," which was normally ordered by Military Intelligence before interrogations and involved 12 to 24 hours of stress positions, sleep or liquid deprivation, and physical exercises sometimes to the point of unconsciousness, and "f**king," which referred to beating or torturing detainees severely.

Frontline and other soldiers were invited to take part in both practices, according to the report, while, if the detainees were injured as a result of the abuse, a physicians' assistant would administer an analgesic and sign off on a report stating that the injury took place during capture.

The beatings and other abuses served mainly to relieve stress, according to the three soldiers. "On their day off people would show up all the time," said one sergeant. "Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport."

The soldiers blamed the abuses in large part on the failure of civilian and military leaders to clarify what was and was not permitted, particularly in light of the administration's position that the Geneva Convention, in which the unit had been trained, did not apply to detainees captured in Afghanistan.

"We knew where the Geneva Conventions drew the line, but then you get that confusion when the (Secretary of Defense) and the president make that statement," said the captain. After the invasion of Iraq, "none of the unit policies changed. Iraq was cast as part of the war on terror, not a separate entity in and of itself but a part of a larger war."

"Leadership failed to provide clear guidance so we just developed it," said one of the sergeants. "They wanted intel (intelligence). As long as no PUCs came up dead it happened. We heard rumours of PUCs dying so we were careful. We kept it to broken arms and legs and shit (like that)."

The administration has strongly resisted calls by HRW and other rights groups, as well as Democrats and some Republicans, for the appointment of independent bipartisan commission to carry out a comprehensive investigation of detainee abuses, including the responsibility, if any, of senior military officers and government officials.

Civilians believed to have been Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers had their own interrogation facilities at the base and at another known as FOB Tiger close to the Syrian border. They sometimes removed prisoners – and all their records – from the bases, apparently to eliminate evidence of their having been held there.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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