Dozens Have Alleged Koran’s Mishandling
Senior Bush administration officials reacted with outrage to a Newsweek report that U.S. interrogators had desecrated the Koran at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility, and the magazine retracted the story last week. But allegations of disrespectful treatment of Islam’s holy book are far from rare.
An examination of hearing transcripts, court records and government documents, as well as interviews with former detainees, their lawyers, civil liberties groups and U.S. military personnel, reveals dozens of accusations involving the Koran, not only at Guantanamo, but also at American-run detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Pentagon is conducting an internal investigation of reported abuses at the naval base in Cuba, led by Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Schmidt. The administration has refused to say what the inquiry, still weeks from completion, has found so far.
But two years ago, amid allegations of desecration and hunger strikes by inmates, the Army instituted elaborate procedures for sensitive treatment of the Koran at the prison camp. Once the new procedures were in place, complaints there stopped, said the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors conditions in prisons and detention facilities.
The allegations, both at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, contain detailed descriptions of what Muslim prisoners said was mishandling of the Koran -- sometimes in a deliberately provocative manner.
In one instance, an Iraqi detainee alleged that a soldier had a guard dog carry a copy of the Koran in its mouth. In another, guards at Guantanamo were said to have scrawled obscenities inside Korans.
Other prisoners said Korans were kicked across floors, stomped on and thrown against walls. One said a soldier urinated on his copy, and others said guards ridiculed the religious text, declaring that Allah’s words would not save detainees.
Some of the alleged incidents appear to have been inadvertent or to have resulted from U.S. personnel’s lack of understanding about how sensitive Muslim detainees might be to mishandling of the Koran. In several cases, for instance, copies were allegedly knocked about during scuffles with prisoners who refused to leave their cells.
In other cases, the allegations seemed to describe instances of deliberate disrespect.
“They tore it and threw it on the floor,” former detainee Mohammed Mazouz said of guards at Guantanamo Bay. “They urinated on it. They walked on top of the Koran. They used the Koran like a carpet.”
“We told them not to do it. We begged. And then they did it some more,” said Mazouz, a Moroccan who was seized in Pakistan soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Recently released, he described the alleged incidents in a telephone interview from his home in Marrakech.
Ahmad Naji Abid Ali Dulaymi, who was held at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq for 10 months, singled out a soldier or noncommissioned officer known to detainees only as “Fox.” He said prisoners were forced to sit naked, were licked by dogs, and were soaked in cold water and then forced to sit in front of a powerful air-conditioner.
“But frankly,” he said, “the worst insult and humiliation they were doing to us, especially for the religious ones among us, is when they, especially Fox, tore up holy books of Koran and threw them away into the trash or into dirty water.
“Almost every day, Fox used to take a brand new Koran, and tear off the plastic cover in front of us and then throw it away into the trash container.”
The hunger strikes erupted in 2002 at Guantanamo when word swept the camp that Korans were being desecrated. In response, the Defense Department’s Southern Command, which oversees the prison, issued four pages of guidelines instructing soldiers in the proper way of “inspecting and handling” Korans.
In essence, the books are generally to be handled only by Muslim chaplains working for the military, and guards were instructed not to touch the Koran unless absolutely necessary.
Muslims revere the Koran as the word of God and have rules for handling it. It is always kept in a high place with nothing on top of it. A ritual ablution is required before touching a copy, which must be held above the waist. Some Muslims hold that nonbelievers must not touch the holy book.
At that time, the Red Cross was fielding similar complaints from prisoners, and with the January 2003 written policy the problems seemed to cease.
“The ICRC believes the U.S. authorities did take corrective measures,” said Simon Schorno, a spokesman in Washington.
Other sensitivity training is continuing. At Ft. Lewis in Washington state, guards and other soldiers headed to Guantanamo Bay and other facilities go through classes and exercises to increase awareness of Arab and Muslim customs, said Lt. Col. Warren Perry. Much of the training deals specifically with the Koran.
“Don’t step on it, don’t bump it, don’t disrespect it,” he said.
When handling a Koran can’t be avoided, Perry said, soldiers are taught “to wash hands or put on sterile gloves before you touch.”
But several military officials suggested it was ridiculous to think guards and interrogators would bother to desecrate the Koran in an environment as dangerous as a military prison.
“There were scuffles, there were problems, the prisoners were not happy,” recalled Army Lt. Col. Raymond A. Tetreault, a Catholic priest and chaplain at Guantanamo Bay during 2002.
He said prisoners sometimes physically resisted when being removed from cells and belongings such as the Koran would be inadvertently knocked around. Other times the books had to be opened and inspected by guards to make sure weapons or other contraband were not hidden inside, he said.
“The guards were trying to do their job, and the detainees were not happy being there,” Tetreault said.
Acknowledging that detainees continue to raise allegations of Koran mistreatment, the chaplain said, “Well, it’s human nature to embellish a little bit.”
Some reports on alleged Koran desecration have suggested it was sometimes a tactic to get prisoners to talk, but four interrogators interviewed by The Times said they never saw intentional mishandling of the Koran, or even its use as a prop during an interrogation.
“We never took the Koran into an interrogation or used it in any way against them,” said Paul Holton, a chief warrant officer with the Army National Guard in Utah who questioned high-level Iraqi military officers after the U.S.-led invasion.
“It was just understood that that was off-limits.” It was also considered counterproductive, he said.
“We figured it was going to bring about additional anger and hatred toward us,” Holton said. “With certain fanatical and religious types, you don’t want to inflame them and give them further reason to dislike us, even in an interrogation. They just become more firm, more staunch and more resistant.”
An interrogator who served at Guantanamo Bay said he received no formal sensitivity training, and that there were miscues that offended Muslims.
When Korans were delivered to the prison, he said, guards issuing the holy books “would put them on the floor and a lot of the devout Muslims went nuts right away.”
Later, guards allowed detainees to cradle their Korans in surgical masks hung from the mesh walls of their cells. The soldiers called them “Koran hammocks.”
The recent furor began after Newsweek magazine reported in its May 9 issue that Schmidt and his investigators “have confirmed” several infractions, including an incident where a Koran was flushed down a toilet.
The news item was blamed for a series of protests overseas. At least 14 people died in rioting in Afghanistan and protests were held in several other countries.
On May 15, Newsweek acknowledged that there were errors in the story, saying its source had backed away from an assertion that military investigators had concluded that a Koran had been flushed down a toilet. The next day the magazine retracted the story. “Based on what we know now,” said Editor Mark Whitaker, “we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay.”
Newsweek also apologized and expressed regret about the violence. But the anger in the Muslim world -- and in the White House -- has not dissipated.
On Friday, about 500 British Muslims prayed and chanted anti-U.S. slogans like “Desecrate today, die tomorrow,” in front of the U.S. Embassy in London.
Martin Mubanga, a Zambian who was detained at Guantanamo Bay, participated in the rally. In an interview with The Times, he said two guards made him kneel and held his wrists in locked positions while others searched his cell. His Koran was thrown to the floor; “I saw it in the corner of my eye,” he said.
As the protests continued over the last two weeks, Bush administration officials sought not only to denounce Newsweek, but also to state that the Pentagon did not deem the allegations credible. At the Pentagon, chief spokesman Lawrence Di Rita repeatedly dismissed them as untruths.
“We anticipate, and have seen, in fact, all manner of statements made by detainees,” he said, “many of whom as members of Al Qaeda were trained to allege abuse and torture and all manner of other things.”
The allegations have come in many forums.
Five former prisoners have told The Times of Koran desecration. Jamal Harith, a British Muslim, said interrogators at Guantanamo often kicked or knocked his Koran around. He said guards once deliberately targeted his holy book while hosing down his cell.
“Everybody was upset, but when you are in Cuba you learn to accept,” Harith said after his return to Britain. “You accept it as the norm when you are in there.”
Other accounts from former detainees have been posted on the Internet. Tarek Dergoul, another British Muslim who was held at Guantanamo Bay, recalled soldiers insulting Islam.
“They used to read the English translation of the Koran with their feet up, mocking, for example saying, ‘There are more questions in it than answers,’ ” he said.
Other times, Dergoul said, they “ripped up” Korans. When some soldiers were rotating out of Cuba they would write obscenities in the Korans.
And some allegations are contained in lawsuits, such as one filed against Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by seven men held in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the plaintiffs is Arkan M. Ali, who was held by U.S. authorities in Iraq for nearly a year, part of that time at Abu Ghraib.
Ali listed 11 incidents of torture and abuse. He said he was twice beaten unconscious during interrogations. He said his arm was stabbed and sliced, his forearm shocked and burned. He said he was locked for several days in a wooden coffin-like box, sometimes naked except for a hood over his head.
But it is his 11th and final allegation that in today’s clamor over the Koran that stands out. Ali said U.S. soldiers repeatedly desecrated the Koran in front of him and other prisoners, “including having a military dog pick up the Koran in its mouth.”
Serrano reported from Washington and Daniszewski from London. Staff writers Nicole Gaouette, John Hendren, Mark Mazzetti and Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.