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New Accounts of Torture by U.S. Troops in Iraq

New Accounts of Torture by U.S. Troops

Soldiers Say Failures by Command Led to Abuse

U.S. Army troops subjected Iraqi detainees to severe beatings and other torture at a base in central Iraq from 2003 through 2004, often under orders or with the approval of superior officers, according to accounts from soldiers released by Human Rights Watch today.

The new report, “Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division,” provides soldiers’ accounts of abuses against detainees committed by troops of the 82nd Airborne stationed at Forward Operating Base Mercury (FOB Mercury), near Fallujah.

Three U.S. army personnel—two sergeants and a captain—describe routine, severe beatings of prisoners and other cruel and inhumane treatment. In one incident, a soldier is alleged to have broken a detainee’s leg with a baseball bat. Detainees were also forced to hold five-gallon jugs of water with their arms outstretched and perform other acts until they passed out. Soldiers also applied chemical substances to detainees’ skin and eyes, and subjected detainees to forced stress positions, sleep deprivation, and extremes of hot and cold. Detainees were also stacked into human pyramids and denied food and water. The soldiers also described abuses they witnessed or participated in at another base in Iraq and during earlier deployments in Afghanistan.

According to the soldiers' accounts, U.S. personnel abused detainees as part of the military interrogation process or merely to “relieve stress.” In numerous cases, they said that abuse was specifically ordered by Military Intelligence personnel before interrogations, and that superior officers within and outside of Military Intelligence knew about the widespread abuse. The accounts show that abuses resulted from civilian and military failures of leadership and confusion about interrogation standards and the application of the Geneva Conventions. They contradict claims by the Bush administration that detainee abuses by U.S. forces abroad have been infrequent, exceptional and unrelated to policy.

“The administration demanded that soldiers extract information from detainees without telling them what was allowed and what was forbidden,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch. “Yet when abuses inevitably followed, the leadership blamed the soldiers in the field instead of taking responsibility.”

Soldiers referred to abusive techniques as “smoking” or “fucking” detainees, who are known as “PUCs,” or Persons Under Control. “Smoking a PUC” referred to exhausting detainees with physical exercises (sometimes to the point of unconsciousness) or forcing detainees to hold painful positions. “Fucking a PUC” detainees referred to beating or torturing them severely. The soldiers said that Military Intelligence personnel regularly instructed soldiers to “smoke” detainees before interrogations.

One sergeant told Human Rights Watch: “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… One day [a sergeant] shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini Louisville Slugger, a metal bat.”

The officer who spoke to Human Rights Watch made persistent efforts over 17 months to raise concerns about detainee abuse with his chain of command and to obtain clearer rules on the proper treatment of detainees, but was consistently told to ignore abuses and to “consider your career.” He believes he was not taken seriously until he approached members of Congress to raise his concerns. When the officer made an appointment this month with Senate staff members of Senators John McCain and John Warner, he says his commanding officer denied him a pass to leave his base. The officer was interviewed several days later by investigators with the Army Criminal Investigative Division and Inspector General’s office, and there were reports that the military has launched a formal investigation. Repeated efforts by Human Rights Watch to contact the 82nd Airborne Division regarding the major allegations in the report received no response.

The soldiers’ accounts show widespread confusion among military units about the legal standards applicable to detainees. One of the sergeants quoted in the report described how abuse of detainees was accepted among military units:

“Trends were accepted. Leadership failed to provide clear guidance so we just developed it. They wanted intel [intelligence]. As long as no PUCs came up dead it happened. We heard rumors of PUCs dying so we were careful. We kept it to broken arms and legs and shit.”

The soldiers’ accounts challenge the Bush administration’s claim that military and civilian leadership did not play a role in abuses. The officer quoted in the report told Human Rights Watch that he believes the abuses he witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan were caused in part by President Bush’s 2002 decision not to apply Geneva Conventions protection to detainees captured in Afghanistan:

“[In Afghanistan,] I thought that the chain on command all the way up to the National Command Authority [President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld] had made it a policy that we were going to interrogate these guys harshly. . . . We knew where the Geneva Conventions drew the line, but then you get that confusion when the Sec Def [Secretary of Defense] and the President make that statement [that Geneva did not apply to detainees] . . . . Had I thought we were following the Geneva Conventions as an officer I would have investigated what was clearly a very suspicious situation.”

The officer said that Bush’s decision on Afghanistan affected detention and interrogation policy in 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.”

As one sergeant cited in the report, discussing his duty in Iraq, said: “The Geneva Conventions is questionable and we didn’t know we were supposed to be following it. . . . [W]e were never briefed on the Geneva Conventions.”

Human Rights Watch called on the military to conduct a thorough investigation of the abuses described in the report, as well as all other cases of reported abuse. It urged that this investigation not be limited to low-ranking military personnel, as has been the case in previous investigations, but to examine the responsibility throughout the military chain of command.

Human Rights Watch repeated its call for the administration to appoint a special counsel to conduct a widespread criminal investigation of military and civilian personnel, including higher level officials, who may be implicated in detainee abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Human Rights Watch also called on the U.S. Congress to create a special commission, along the lines of the 9/11 commission, to investigate prisoner abuse issues, and to enact proposed legislation prohibiting all forms of detainee treatment and interrogation not specifically authorized by the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation and all treatment prohibited by the Convention Against Torture.

“When an experienced Army officer goes out of his way to say something’s systematically wrong, it’s time for the administration and Congress to listen,” Malinowski said. “That means allowing a genuinely independent investigation of the policy decisions that led to the abuse and communicating clear, lawful interrogation rules to the troops on the ground.”

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