Twenty-Seven Detainee Homicides in U.S. Custody

Lax Policies and Inadequate Investigations Create
Culture of Impunity, Human Rights First Research Shows

NEW YORK, NY – More than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody since 2002, Human Rights First research in a soon to be released report indicates, including 27 cases the Army has to date identified as suspected or confirmed homicides, and at least seven cases in which detainees were tortured to death. The findings come as chairmen and ranking members of a House/Senate Conference Committee are scheduled to meet next week to determine whether to include in a defense appropriations bill an amendment setting clear rules for U.S. interrogation policy to prohibit abusive treatment.

New analysis by Human Rights First of dozens of deaths in U.S. custody reveals a pattern of grossly inadequate and flawed investigations – compromising the United States’ ability to hold individual wrongdoers accountable. The investigations have been flawed in various ways. (Case examples involving each of these flaws given at the end of this document; references available on request):

  • Criminal investigators have failed to interview key witnesses, collect useable evidence, or maintain evidence that could be used for any subsequent prosecution;
  • Record keeping has been grossly inadequate, further undermining chances for prosecution;
  • Overlapping criminal and administrative investigations instigated by the military have interfered with each other, and compromised chances for accountability;
  • Commanders have repeatedly failed to report deaths of detainees in the custody of their command, reported the deaths only after a period of days and sometimes weeks, launched serious investigations only after a case became publicly known, or actively interfered in efforts to pursue investigations.

Of the investigative failures, Brigadier General David R. Irvine, U.S. Army (Ret.), a retired Army Reserve strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner interrogation and military law for 18 years with the Sixth Army Intelligence School, commented: “There is an old Army aphorism: the unit does what the commander checks. If any commander actually cared that Geneva was followed, you can be sure that it would have been followed — and that goes right up the chain of command.” He continued: “If rigorous adherence to humane treatment had been deemed important, someone wearing stars would have required a thorough, impartial investigation of every death of a detainee.”

Deborah Pearlstein, U.S. Law and Security Program Director at Human Rights First, agreed: “These flawed inquiries are part of the larger effects of sending troops into the field with unlawful guidance on interrogations and detention or no guidance at all, and without knowledge of the effects of allowing incidents of wrongdoing to pass with relative impunity. Those engaged on the front lines every day in the fight against terror need and deserve a clearer message from command about what American leadership really means.”

On October 5, 2005, the Senate passed by a 90-9 vote an amendment, sponsored by Senator John McCain and other senior Republicans, that would make the Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogations binding policy for all those in military custody. The measure would also reinforce the ban on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees, which the Administration now asserts does not apply to U.S. intelligence agencies or to U.S. actions abroad. The House version of the massive military spending bill does not contain the McCain provision. House and Senate negotiators meet this week to reconcile differences between the two versions of the bill.

Among examples of the investigative failures highlighted above:

  • Criminal investigators failed to interview key witnesses, collect useable evidence, or maintain evidence that could be used for any subsequent prosecution.Abu Malik Kenami (Abdureda Lafta Abdul Kareem), a 43-year-old Iraqi man, died on December 9, 2003, in an American detention facility in Mosul, Iraq. He had been captured four days earlier, and according to the soldiers who interrogated him upon his arrival, he seemed to be in good health and did not suffer from any pre-existing medical conditions. On the night of December 8, soldiers punished Kenami for talking by forcing him to perform “up and downs” – an exercise in which he was required to continually stand then sit, used as a disciplinary tool by U.S. forces in Iraq – several times for periods of up to twenty minutes. Kenami had been subjected repeatedly to “up and downs” during his detention. Soldiers then flexicuffed his hands behind his back, and covered his head with a sandbag – a hood. Kenami was then ordered to lie down between detainees in his overcrowded cell (built for 30 prisoners, at that time it housed 66). When a guard attempted to rouse the prisoners the next morning, Kenami, still bound and hooded, was dead.

    The Army’s initial criminal investigations into Kenami’s death could not determine the cause of death without an autopsy. It was only months later, after the revelations from Abu Ghraib, that the Army reopened many cases of deaths in custody to review, that it became clear how troubling the original criminal investigation had been. In the Army’s own words from the review, released through FOIA requests, “it was weak in Thoroughness and Timeliness.” In addition to the lack of autopsy, the review determined that important interviews were not conducted of the interrogators, medic, or detainees present at the scene of the death, and that key details were omitted from the report. According to the Army’s review, the original investigation file “[did] not mention the presence, or lack of, signs of a struggle, or of blood or body fluids,” “the crime scene sketch… [did] not document where guard personnel found the deceased,” and “records of medical treatment of the deceased were not collected and reviewed.” Of note, the Army’s original administrative investigation had recommended that an Iraqi physician be brought in to treat the detainees, noting that among other benefits, “it would [also] decrease the perception of our involvement or cover-up in events like these.” The cause of Kenami’s death remains officially undetermined. No punitive or disciplinary action has been taken.

  • Record keeping was grossly inadequate, often making accountability impossible.All that is known about Hadi Abdul Hussain Hasson al-Zubaidy (Hasson) is his name, his identification number and the fact that he died in Iraq, at Camp Bucca, some time between April and September 2003. Army investigators became aware of his death approximately one year after it happened, and only after the Army reviewed its detainee records following the Abu Ghraib scandal. Despite subsequent attempts to determine what happened to Hasson – including when and how he died – investigators were only able to determine that Hasson had been treated on board a U.S. Navy hospital ship. Human Rights First submitted a FOIA request to the Department of Defense for any Naval records relating to Hasson’s treatment – one of the sources investigators do not appear to have tapped; that request remains pending.

    Investigators have now closed the Hasson case without being able to determine whether his death was due to natural causes or homicide. The investigators’ report notes that inadequate record-keeping made it impossible for them to learn anything more. A U.S. Mortuary Affairs officer told an investigator that “the documentation on deceased Detainees was very limited . . . the majority of the time prior to earlier this year [2004], when the Mortuary received the remains of a deceased Detainee they would only know that the deceased was a detainee, and would not have any other info on the remains, so they would have a list of the remains as unknown John Doe.”

  • Overlapping criminal and administrative investigations instigated by the military interfered with each other, compromising chances for accountability.Obeed Hethere Radad was shot to death on September 11, 2003 in his detention cell in an American forward operating base in Tikrit, Iraq. Radad’s death was not reported for four days. An internal Army review (again, prompted by renewed scrutiny following the revelations of Abu Ghraib) of the resulting criminal and administrative investigations found that the delay prevented the recovery of evidence that would have been needed in any subsequent prosecution: neither the bullet nor the gun was recovered, and no autopsy was conducted. Army Regulations contain scores of pages of detailed procedures on the proper handling and storage of physical evidence.

    Prior to the conclusion of the criminal investigation, the soldier accused in the shooting of Radad, Specialist Juba Martino-Poole, sought a military discharge in lieu of a court-martial for manslaughter. Without waiting for criminal investigative agents to conclude their investigation and forward their findings, the suspected soldier’s commander approved the request for discharge. A little more than a week later, criminal investigators found probable cause to charge the soldier who shot Radad with murder. Post-Abu Ghraib reviewers were led to decide against reopening the investigation; Martino-Poole had already been discharged. Martino-Poole later accused his commanders of wanting to avoid disclosure of the lax security practices at the base – practices that would likely have come to light in a court-martial proceeding.

  • Commanders repeatedly failed to report deaths of detainees in the custody of their command, reported the deaths only after a period of days and sometimes weeks, launched serious investigations only after a case became publicly known, or actively interfered in efforts to pursue investigations.In one of the more well-known cases, Mohammad Munim al-Izmerly, a 65-year-old chemical scientist, was detained at the Camp Cropper high value detainee facility in April 2003; his family was allowed to visit him once. Within a few weeks of their visit in January 2004, al-Izmerly was dead. U.S. forces retained al-Izmerly’s body for 17 days after his death, and did not inform Army criminal investigators that al-Izmerly had died in U.S. custody until after his body was released. The family only learned of his death after U.S. forces delivered al-Izmerly’s body to an Iraqi hospital, accompanied by a death certificate stating that al-Izmerly had died of a “sudden brainstem compression,” without any explanation of its cause. The family asked the director of Baghdad hospital’s forensic department to autopsy Al-Izmerly’s body; according to press reports, the autopsy found that Izmerly died from a “sudden hit to the back of his head” and that the cause of the death was blunt trauma. The forensic department director told the press that al-Izmerly “died from a massive blow to the head. We don’t disagree with the coalition’s report, but it doesn’t explain how he got his injuries in the first place.”

    The initial, inconclusive investigation into the case was closed, and only appears to have been reopened after press accounts of al-Izmerly’s death. The Army Criminal Investigation Command listing for al-Izmerly’s death is “undetermined cause,” because the body was released and no U.S. autopsy was performed. The family reportedly filed a wrongful death claim for $10,000, but the Army dismissed it, saying the family had presented no evidence of wrongdoing by U.S. personnel. The re-opened investigation into al-Izmerly’s death remains pending; to date, no charges are reported to have been brought.


Published on October 19, 2005


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