Pentagon officials on Friday increased to 37 the number of detainee deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan that have prompted investigations, including at least eight unresolved homicides that may have involved assaults before or during interrogation.
Earlier this month, defense officials detailed 25 cases of prisoners who died in U.S. Army detention centers. But in an unscheduled briefing at the Pentagon, a senior defense official and a senior Pentagon medical official said the number had risen to 30 cases, including some involving more than one death, for a total of 37 deaths. Thirty-two deaths occurred in Iraq and five in Afghanistan.
Although military officials cautioned that some of the deaths involved justifiable use of force, the rising number of detainee deaths intensified concerns among lawmakers and critics of the American-led occupation of Iraq.
“Time after time, we’ve said ... there are a few bad apples, and every day we’re finding out that this apple cart is getting bigger,” said Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who was briefed on the cases Friday. “I’m concerned not only about getting to the bottom of this, but also getting to the top of it.”
Human rights activists have denounced detention practices.
“It’s important that the Pentagon seems to be releasing these figures with some semblance of transparency, but it’s difficult to know if we’re far -- I would even say frighteningly far -- from the whole truth,” Amnesty International spokeswoman Wende Gozan said.
The senior defense official said the number of known deaths in detention was a small proportion of the 45,000 detainees who have been handled in Iraq alone. He compared the 37 deaths with what he said was a 3.3% death rate in federal and state prisons in the United States.
Photographs and video images of detainees being abused at the Abu Ghraib prison -- site of two of the newly disclosed suspected homicides -- have drawn international condemnation and prompted more than half a dozen probes of U.S. military detention centers and inquiries in both chambers of Congress.
The latest images were published in Friday’s Washington Post.
Of the 37 deaths detailed Friday, investigators found that 15 were due to “natural or undetermined” causes other than homicide, in many cases heart attacks.
Eight deaths were ruled justifiable killings. In those cases, soldiers followed so-called standard rules of engagement and killed detainees either to protect other troops or prevent prisoners from escaping, the senior military medical official said.
Two are wrongful deaths, while as many as nine are homicides still under investigation. The remaining three are in a special category because they occurred outside of any detention facility.
Among the cases is a fatal shooting at southern Iraq’s Camp Bucca in April 2003 that the Army ruled justifiable. But a Red Cross team that witnessed the incident at the facility concluded that “at no point” did the prisoner pose a serious threat to guards.
The deaths of the others deemed justifiable homicides all occurred at Abu Ghraib -- four in November 2003, one in March 2004 and two in April 2004.
Both of the wrongful deaths were in Iraq.
In a September 2003 incident, a soldier fatally shot a prisoner who was throwing rocks at him at a forward operating base.
He was later downgraded in rank from specialist to private and discharged from the Army, apparently the only soldier to date to be prosecuted for killing a detainee. He was not imprisoned.
The second case, of a CIA contract worker who allegedly killed an Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib in November, was referred to the Justice Department, the official said. As a civilian, the worker could not be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, officials said.
The Justice Department said Friday that it had received another referral from the Defense Department “regarding a civilian contractor in Iraq” and had opened an investigation. Officials would not say if the incident involved a death. It was the first Justice Department criminal investigation sought by the Pentagon.
The CIA has referred at least two other cases to the department.
Of the nine unresolved homicide cases, three occurred in Afghanistan and six in Iraq, including the two at Abu Ghraib.
In one of the cases, a preliminary assessment has found that an Abu Ghraib detainee died of natural causes, but the investigation is continuing.
Among the specifics offered by the Pentagon were details regarding 23 autopsies by military medical examiners. Twelve of the death certificates concluded that the deaths were from natural causes. One Iraqi death was labeled an accident. One other case is pending; defense officials could provide no information about it.
Some of those labeled homicides involved gunshots, but the most common reason was blunt-force injuries. Six died at detention centers throughout Iraq:
* On June 6, 2003, Naem Sadoon Hatab was found strangled in an outdoor isolation area at the Whitehorse detention facility in Nasiriya, Iraq, according to his death certificate.
* On June 13, Dilar Dababa died of a severe head injury in Iraq.
* One Nov. 4, Manadel Jamadi died of blunt-force injuries complicated by “compromised respiration” at Abu Ghraib. The suspected homicide occurred while he was with Navy SEALs and other special operations troops.
* On Jan. 9, Abdul Jaleel died of blunt-force injuries and asphyxiation at a prison in Al Asad, Iraq. His case is one of the suspected incidents of homicide still under investigation. Jaleel was found gagged and shackled to a cell door with his hands over his head.
* On April 28, Ali Gumaa Fahin died of complications due to multiple gunshot wounds in Baghdad.
* On May 12, Maj. Gen. Abid Mowhosh, former commander of Iraq’s air defenses, died of asphyxiation due to smothering and chest compression in Qaim, Iraq.
Three detainees were killed in Afghanistan, according to their death certificates.
Most recently, on Nov. 6, Abdul Wahid died of multiple blunt-force injuries -- complicated by what examiners suspect was a condition in which toxins are released to the body, sometimes due to a crushing injury or an electrical shock -- at a detention center in Helmand province.
Two deaths at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul have been investigated for 17 months. On Dec. 3, 2002, Habib Ullah died of a blood clot caused by a blunt-force injury at Bagram. A week later, an Afghan whose last name was Dilawar died of blunt-force injuries to his lower body that complicated his coronary artery disease at the base outside Kabul, according to the death certificates.
Human rights groups have been pressing for an accounting of the deaths of Ullah and Dilawar.
The senior military official said the investigations have gone on so long because they were “very difficult” and “very complicated.”
The three deaths that occurred outside of detention centers since August 2002 include one in which a soldier shot and killed an Afghan who allegedly lunged at his gun, the senior military official said.
In the second, an Iraqi was fatally shot after he allegedly moved menacingly toward a sergeant who was escorting him, he said.
In the third, an Iraqi drowned after he allegedly was forced to jump off a bridge by U.S. troops, officials said, confirming media reports about the fatality for the first time.
Separately, Army officials have closed 14 cases in which detainees were allegedly assaulted, and they are pursuing two assault investigations.