updated 7/31/2007 6:50:52 PM ET 2007-07-31T22:50:52

A civilian grand jury is investigating the deaths of two detainees at a U.S. jail in Afghanistan nearly five years ago, according to current and former service members who said they've testified in the probe.

The rare federal court inquiry follows the convictions in courts-martial of six soldiers on charges of abusing detainees, including the two men who died. Nine other servicemen were charged by military prosecutors, but they were either acquitted or the charges against them were dropped.

It's unclear who the targets of the new investigation are or what may have prompted it now; federal prosecutors declined Monday to even confirm it.

A former military defense attorney said he had heard of only one other instance in which civilian prosecutors have picked up a case that military prosecutors had already handled.

In interviews over the past week, three soldiers and an officer from an Ohio-based 377th military police reserve company told The Associated Press they were called as witnesses to the federal grand jury in northern Virginia near the Pentagon. The 377th ran the jail at Bagram Air Field.

The men said they had been told the grand jury's targets were no longer in the military.

Federal law allows the civilian prosecution of service members who have left the military since the crime occurred, even if military authorities previously have brought charges.

Still, Michael Waddington, a former military defense lawyer, said he had never heard of such a prosecution before June 2006, when federal authorities in Kentucky charged former Pfc. Steven D. Green with shooting and killing an Iraqi girl after he and other soldiers raped her. Green has pleaded not guilty.

Detainees died in 2002
The latest investigation concerns the deaths of Afghan detainees named Dilawar and Habibullah, who were being held in the military jail at Bagram, and died in December 2002.

Though the deaths initially were ruled natural, military investigators later concluded the pair were fatally beaten.

Prosecutors at Fort Bliss, just outside El Paso, spent more than a year on courts martial involving 15 soldiers — 11 from the Cincinnati-based police unit and four from the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Pfc. Willie V. Brand initially was charged with manslaughter in Dilawar's killing. That charge was dropped, and a military judge found Brand guilty of abusing Dilawar and reduced his rank. No one else was charged in the detainees' deaths, though five other soldiers pleaded guilty to abusing them.

Caused human rights uproar
The lack of a prison sentence for Brand and of more emphatic convictions outraged Afghan officials and human rights advocates.

Sgt. Duane Grubb said Monday that the civilian prosecutors who called him to testify in early July about the deaths questioned him about his time at the jail, focusing on soldiers he worked with who were not charged in military courts.

Sgts. Darin Broady and Christopher Greatorex and Capt. Christopher Beiring also said they were called to testify about the dead men and the soldiers' work at the jail.

"The first thing they told me is that I'm not being looked at," said Greatorex, who like Broady was acquitted of hitting Habibullah.

Broady and Greatorex said investigators showed them a series of photographs, including those of soldiers from the 377th, and asked if they saw any of them abusing the dead men or other detainees. The men said they did not.

All three sergeants said they declined offers of immunity from prosecution for crimes based on their testimony.

Jim Rybicki, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Virginia, said in an e-mail that he could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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