By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/6/2004 6:55:13 PM ET 2004-05-06T22:55:13

Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday that the Department of Justice will "take action where appropriate" if American civilians are found to have participated in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

"We will follow evidence and act in accordance with evidence," Ashcroft said, resolving the debate among legal scholars and some government officials about whether current law provides authority to prosecute Americans who abuse prisoners overseas.

Members of active duty or Reserve military units are prosecuted under the military justice system, and several soldiers now face charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for alleged prisoner abuses in Iraq.

But earlier this week, some lawyers in the Justice Department questioned whether existing law would give the government the power to prosecute civilians involved in the prisoner abuse. 

Ashcroft's statements Thursday made it clear that those doubts have ended.

Laws now on the books make it a federal crime to commit assault, rape, abusive sexual contact, torture or to cause injuries that maim a victim — provided that such conduct happens in an area of federal jurisdiction.  So how would those laws apply to Iraq? 

Officials say that power comes from a never-before-used federal law, passed by Congress in 2000. It gives U.S. federal courts jurisdiction over civilians who are "employed by or accompanying the Armed Forces outside the United States."  That would include civilian employees of the military and Defense Department contractors and subcontractors.

Powers granted the government under the law, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, "provide a basis for investigation and activity on the part of the Justice Department," Ashcroft said.

The attorney general declined to say whether any specific cases had been referred to the Justice Department for review, nor would he confirm that any such investigations are under way.

But senior government officials said earlier this week that the Defense Department has already referred one civilian case for possible investigation. They said it involves a prisoner in Afghanistan who died during interrogation by a CIA contractor in June 2003.

The officials said Thursday that Justice Department lawyers were also in the early stages of looking at the deaths of two detainees in Iraq who were being questioned by CIA officers.  One was a prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad who died on Nov. 4. The other was an Iraqi Republican Guard officer, Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who was being questioned in Western Iraq, also in November.

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The death of Mowhoush was disclosed last fall.  A U.S. military statement said he appeared to have died from natural causes.  The statement was issued from the western Iraqi town of al-Qaim, near the border with Syria.

"Mowhoush said he didn't feel well and subsequently lost consciousness. The soldier questioning him found no pulse, then conducted cardiac and pulmonary resuscitation and called for medical authorities," according to the military statement issued last fall.

While the statement said Mowhoush was questioned by a "soldier," officials now confirm the questioning was performed by a CIA officer.

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