updated 10/13/2006 2:09:27 PM ET 2006-10-13T18:09:27

The U.S. Southern Command has been told to investigate possible abuse at the Guantanamo Bay prison after a Marine officer said she overheard guards boasting about abusing detainees, the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s office said Friday.

Marine Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, who represents a detainee at the U.S. naval base in eastern Cuba, filed the “hotline” complaint last week, attaching a sworn statement from his paralegal, Sgt. Heather Cerveny, 23. In it, Cerveny described comments made by several guards in a bar at Guantanamo Bay. Several of them bragged about beating detainees and described it as common practice.

“Other ones of them were talking about how when they get annoyed with the detainees, about how they hit them, or they punched them in the face,” Cerveny told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday night. “It was a general consensus that I (detected) that as a group this is something they did. That this was OK at Guantanamo, that this is how the detainees get treated.”

Cerveny visited the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba last month and said she spent an hour with the guards at the military club. She said they stopped discussing beating detainees after finding out she works for a detainee’s legal team.

In her complaint, she wrote: “From the whole conversation, I understood that striking detainees was a common practice. ... Everyone in the group laughed at the others’ stories of beating detainees.”

Asked Thursday if the conversation could have been exaggerated bar talk, she said, “I don’t think that they were trying to impress me in any way. They were already in a discussion in there when I walked into a group.”

She said she filed the complaint because “I don’t think it’s right for us to be allowing these prisoners to be treated poorly. ... I think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Gary Comerford, spokesman for the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s office, told The Associated Press that in the past two days, the case “has been referred to Southcom for action. They’re going to have to look into this.”

The military Joint Task Force that runs the detention camps in Guantanamo Bay pledged to work with investigators from the Miami-based Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Caribbean and Latin America.

“The Joint Task Force will cooperate fully with Southcom to learn the facts of the matter and will take action where misconduct is discovered,” said Navy Cmdr. Rob Durand, spokesman for the detention center, in an e-mail to the AP from the base.

He insisted that his group’s mission “is the safe and humane care and custody of detained enemy combatants. Abuse or harassment of detainees in any form is not condoned or tolerated.”

The Inspector General receives 14,000 tips on misconduct each year via the hotline, and opens 3,000 cases each year as a result, Comerford said.

There are now 454 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, according to Vincent Lusser, a spokesman for the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Red Cross just completed a two-week visit to the prison, meeting the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and 13 other high-profile detainees who were transferred there weeks ago from CIA custody.

Guantanamo Bay began receiving prisoners, most of them captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in January 2002. Only 10 of the detainees have been charged with crimes.

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