U.S. defends treatment of Afghan prisoners

/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.S. military defended its human rights record in Afghanistan on Wednesday, saying a May inspection by an American general found no evidence of ongoing abuse at the country’s 22 detention centers. The report, however, does not examine earlier incidents, including the deaths of eight prisoners.

Pentagon officials earlier this week put the number of prisoner deaths in Afghanistan that have been investigated since mid-2002 at eight, a higher number than previously reported. In a letter made public on Monday, Human Rights Watch charged slow-paced investigations had “spawned a culture of impunity” that may have fueled prisoner abuse in Iraq.

“We can’t go back and change the past,” U.S. Maj. Mark McCann told reporters in Kabul. “What we can do is ensure that there are conditions in place now for in the future, where we ensure that this stuff will not happen again.”

General investigating detention centers
After allegations emerged of abuse by U.S. forces against prisoners in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Charles Jacoby Jr. was dispatched in May to examine treatment at the 22 detainee facilities in Afghanistan. His report is still under review, and no release date has been set, McCann said.

The Washington Post has reported that Jacoby found many shortcomings, including inadequate enforcement of approved interrogation rules. McCann said that didn’t mean prisoners were being mistreated.

“During the inspection, Gen. Jacoby found no evidence of abuse taking place at these facilities, nor was there any evidence of leaders authorizing or condoning abuse,” McCann said. “Deficiencies discovered ... were either corrected on the spot, or policy and procedure changes were implemented to ensure any potential abuse in the future was eliminated.”

He would not say how many detainees U.S. forces are holding in Afghanistan and declined media requests to visit the detention facilities, saying it would violate Geneva Convention rules on treatment of prisoners of war.

“We’re not allowed to put them on display, period, because it would seem like we would be exploiting them,” McCann said.

Red Cross allowed to visit main facilities
The International Committee of the Red Cross is allowed to meet with detainees and inspect the main detention facilities at Bagram air base outside Kabul and in the southern city of Kandahar, but not the 20 “field holding sites” scattered around the country that process detainees before they are transferred to one of the larger facilities, McCann said.

Allegations of death, torture and abuse at U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to dozens of investigations, and, in some cases, criminal charges against U.S. military, CIA and contracted personnel.

Of the eight deaths in custody in Afghanistan, McCann said three cases remain under investigation, three are pending judicial disposition and one case is complete, but he would not provide details. He did not know the status of the eighth.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, in an open letter Monday to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, reported two cases of detainee deaths it said were previously unacknowledged, one of which it said was investigated as a murder.

The U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, later Monday, released a list of eight deaths that had been investigated.

Two cases appear new
Of those, five were previously acknowledged by military officials. The circumstances of two more seemed to match those described by Human Rights Watch as new. It was unclear whether the eighth has been reported previously.

McCann said the U.S. military pursues all cases that are brought to its attention. When reporters relayed a statement by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission that claimed it has received 120 reports of abuse against detainees, he said it was the group’s responsibility to bring the claims to U.S. attention.

“We can’t look into something that we have no knowledge of,” he said. “It’s like we would be confirming something that we don’t know is out there.”