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Autopsies Support Abuse Allegations

Times Staff Writer

Autopsy reports on 44 prisoners who died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that 21 were victims of homicide, including eight who appear to have been fatally abused by their captors, the American Civil Liberties Union reported Monday.

The abuse involved cases in which detainees were smothered, beaten or exposed to the elements, sometimes during interrogation. Many of these cases had been brought to light previously but now have been confirmed through U.S. military autopsies. Some of the deaths followed abusive interrogations by elite Navy SEALs, military intelligence officers and the CIA, the ACLU said.

ACLU officials called for senior military officials to be identified and held accountable for the deaths.

“These documents present irrefutable evidence that U.S. operatives tortured detainees to death during interrogations,” said Amrit Singh, an attorney with the ACLU. “The public has a right to know who authorized the use of torture techniques and why these deaths have been covered up.”

The U.S. military has come under sustained criticism for its handling of detainees since photos of abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad surfaced in April 2004. At least 141 prisoners have died in U.S. custody, according to Human Rights First, an advocacy group formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. That figure includes detainees who died of natural causes.

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In one homicide case, a 47-year-old detainee died in U.S. custody from “blunt force injuries and asphyxia” on Jan. 9, 2004, in Al Asad, Iraq, after being shackled to the top of a door frame with a gag in his mouth, according to Army documents. Another document said the case involved “choking.”

In another case, an Iraqi captured by Coronado, Calif.-based SEAL Team 7 and questioned by OGA -- an abbreviation for “other government agency,” a term that generally refers to the CIA -- died under interrogation at Abu Ghraib due to “blunt force trauma complicated by compromised respiration” after suffering bruises and rib fractures, U.S. military documents show.

The Pentagon has launched a series of investigations. But critics lament that no one over the rank of brigadier general has been held accountable.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the cases. Col. Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman, said: “In every instance that’s reported, it will be fully investigated, and when appropriate, action will be taken by commanders to hold those accountable. And in the instances under Army purview we have done that.”

Cmdr. Jeff Bender, a spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command, said 11 SEALs had been charged with abusing detainees. Nine, including an officer, received administrative penalties, such as letters of reprimand, extra duty or demotion, and two faced court-martial proceedings.

Bender added that the names of those who received administrative punishment could not be released because of federal Privacy Act restrictions. Of the two whose cases went to trial, one was convicted and the other, Lt. Andrew K. Ledford, was acquitted in May.

Army officials noted that the service had prosecuted several soldiers on charges of detainee abuse. The case of former Iraqi Maj. Gen. Abed Mowhoush, whose death on Nov. 26, 2003, was caused by what the Army described as “asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression” -- allegedly when he was forced into a sleeping bag -- has resulted in three prosecutions, said Maj. Wayne Marotto, an Army spokesman.

Chief Warrant Officer Lewis E. Welshofer Jr.'s court-martial is scheduled for January. Chief Warrant Officer Jefferson L. Williams is due to stand trial next month, and Spc. Jerry L. Loper is also expected to face trial soon.

The ACLU and other organizations insist that the abuses were not the work solely of a few relatively low-ranking soldiers.


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