updated 5/4/2004 3:00:55 PM ET 2004-05-04T19:00:55

An inquiry into the deaths in 2002 of two Afghan prisoners at the main American base in Afghanistan has been going slowly, but already has prompted changes at the lockup, the U.S. military said Tuesday.

Human rights groups have strongly criticized the military for its near-silence about the December 2002 deaths of two Afghan men at a heavily guarded holding facility at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul.

Military coroners ruled the deaths to be homicides. No soldiers have been publicly charged or reprimanded.

The slow pace of the investigation has left the American military facing damaging publicity on two fronts as it confronts new allegations of prisoner abuse in Iraq.

“The investigation is ongoing due in large measure to the complexities associated with gathering evidence and interviewing persons who might have had access to the facility that have long since departed Afghanistan and in some cases departed the Army,” military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michele DeWerth told The Associated Press.

'Modified our procedures'
“Based on interim inquiries, we have modified our procedures in the facility,” she said in an e-mailed response to an AP question.

She didn’t indicate what the inquiries revealed or give any indication how procedures have changed. The military bars reporters from visiting the holding facility or photographing its prisoners, and refuses to say who is being held, for how long, or on suspicion of what charges.

Mullah Habibullah, about 30, died on Dec. 3, 2002, and a 22-year-old taxi driver, Dilawar, died Dec. 10, 2002. U.S. autopsy reports found “blunt force injuries” in both cases. Like many Afghans, Dilawar used one name.

Amnesty International has said alleged abuses took place at an interrogation section on the second floor of the Bagram detention facility, although it was unclear if that is where the men were injured.

DeWerth didn’t respond to questions about a third detainee who died last June at a U.S.-managed holding facility in Asadabad, in eastern Afghanistan. Officials had said they would investigate; no results have been made public.

A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai declined to comment on the investigations or say whether they could undermine support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

Other allegations
In a March report, Human Rights Watch said U.S. operations in Afghanistan were marred by allegations of torture at secretive U.S. prisons across the country.

Two former Bagram prisoners interviewed by AP in March 2003 said they were kept awake, exposed to cold and forced to stand for long periods.

One of them, Saif-ur Rahman, said two men threw a bucket of cold water over him after ordering him to strip in his cell. He said his interrogators forced him to lie spread-eagled on the dirt floor, placing a chair on either hand and on his feet.

“I couldn’t say anything. I was so frightened. I didn’t know what they would do next,” Saif-ur Rahman told AP after his release.

He and another man, Abdul Qayyum, also complained of humiliating taunts from female soldiers.

Human Rights Watch said there were “credible and consistent” allegations that prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and shackled for long periods.

“There is little evidence that the Department of Defense has seriously investigated allegations of abuses or mistreatment at Bagram,” the New York-based rights group said.

“The behavior of the United States sends the message that the U.S. operates on a set of double standards,” it added, referring to Washington’s criticism of other countries’ human rights records.

The U.S. military at the time rejected the group’s findings and said it “confused the situation” in Afghanistan for one in which peacetime methods could be used.

Human Rights Watch said the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan had apparently improved since the initial months following the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001.

Inspections cited
DeWerth said officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross routinely visit Bagram and that the Army inspector general was there in March.

She said the military routinely reviewed operations at Bagram to ensure they are “humane and in accordance with the laws of war.”

“We treat detainees humanely and consistent with the conditions under customary international law for humane treatment,” she said, noting that they got three meals a day, shelter, clothing, “worship opportunities and excellent medical care.”

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