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Torture in Iraq

The following article is an excerpt, in somewhat modified form, from “Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division,” a report issued by Human Rights Watch on September 25, 2005. The full report is available at hrw.org/reports/2005/us0905.

On their day off people would show up all the time. Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent.1 In a way it was sport. The cooks were all US soldiers. One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat. He was the fucking cook. He shouldn’t be in with no PUCs.”

—82nd Airborne sergeant,describing events at FOB Mercury, Iraq

If I as an officer think we’re not even following the Geneva Conventions, there’s something wrong. If officers witness all these things happening, and don’t take action, there’s something wrong. If another West Pointer tells me he thinks, ‘Well, hitting somebody might be okay,’ there’s something wrong.”

—82nd Airborne officer, describing confusion in Iraq
concerning allowable interrogation techniques

1.

Summary

Residents of Fallujah called them “the Murderous Maniacs” because of how they treated Iraqis in detention. They were soldiers of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, stationed at Forward Operating Base Mercury (FOB Mercury) in Iraq. The soldiers considered this name a badge of honor.2

One officer and two noncommissioned officers (NCOs) of the 82nd Airborne who witnessed abuse, speaking on condition of anonymity, described in multiple interviews with Human Rights Watch how their battalion in 2003–2004 routinely used physical and mental torture as a means of intelligence gathering and for stress relief. One soldier raised his concerns within the Army chain of command for seventeen months before the Army agreed to undertake an investigation, but only after he had contacted members of Congress and considered going public with the story.

According to their accounts, the torture and other mistreatment of Iraqis in detention was systematic and was known at varying levels of command. Military Intelligence personnel, they said, directed and encouraged Army personnel to subject prisoners to forced, repetitive exercise, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness, sleep deprivation for days on end, and exposure to extremes of heat and cold as part of the interrogation process. At least one interrogator beat detainees in front of other soldiers. Soldiers also incorporated daily beatings of detainees in preparation for interrogations. Civilians believed to be from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted interrogations out of sight, but not earshot, of soldiers, who heard what they believed were abusive interrogations.

All three soldiers expressed confusion on the proper application of the Geneva Conventions on the laws of armed conflict in the treatment of prisoners. All had served in Afghanistan prior to Iraq and said that contradictory statements by US officials regarding the applicability of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan and Iraq (see Conclusion) contributed to their confusion, and ultimately to how they treated prisoners. Although none were still in Iraq when we interviewed them, the NCOs said they believed the practices continue.

The soldiers came forward because of what they described as deep frustration with the military chain of command’s failure to view the abuses as symptomatic of broader failures of leadership and respond accordingly. All three are active-duty soldiers who wish to continue their military careers. A fax letter, e-mail, and repeated phone calls to the 82nd Airborne Division regarding the major allegations in the report received no response.

When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004, senior officials in the Bush administration claimed that severe prisoner abuse was committed only by a few rogue, poorly trained reserve personnel at a single facility in Iraq. But since then, hundreds of other cases of abuse from Iraq and Afghanistan have come to light, described in US government documents, reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross, media reports, legal documents filed by detainees, and from detainee accounts provided to human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch.3 And while the military has launched investigations and prosecutions of lower-ranking personnel for detainee abuse, in most cases the military has used closed administrative hearings to hand down light administrative punishments like pay reductions and reprimands, instead of criminal prosecutions before courts-martial. The military has made no effort to conduct a broader criminal investigation focusing on how military command might have been involved in reported abuse, and the administration continues to insist that reported abuse had nothing to do with the administration’s decisions on the applicability of the Geneva Conventions or with any approved interrogation techniques.

These soldiers’ firsthand accounts provide further evidence contradicting claims that abuse of detainees by US forces was isolated or spontaneous. The accounts here suggest that the mistreatment of prisoners by the US military is even more widespread than has been acknowledged to date, including among troops belonging to some of the best-trained, most decorated, and highly respected units in the US Army. They describe in vivid terms abusive interrogation techniques ordered by Military Intelligence personnel and known to superior officers.

Most important, they demonstrate that US troops on the battlefield were given no clear guidance on how to treat detainees. When the administration sent these soldiers to war in Afghanistan, it threw out the rules they were trained to uphold (embodied in the Geneva Conventions and the US Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation). Instead, President Bush said only that detainees should be treated “humanely,” not as a requirement of the law but as policy. And no steps were taken to define what “humane” was supposed to mean in practice.4 Once in Iraq, their commanders demanded that they extract intelligence from detainees without telling them what was allowed and what was forbidden. Yet when abuses inevitably followed, the administration blamed only low-ranking soldiers instead of taking responsibility.

These soldiers’ accounts show how the administration’s refusal to insist on adherence to a lawful, long-recognized, and well-defined standard of treatment contributed to the torture of prisoners. They also show how that policy betrayed the soldiers in the field—sowing confusion in the ranks, exposing them to legal sanction when abuses occurred, and placing in an impossible position all those who wished to behave honorably.

The officer and NCOs interviewed by Human Rights Watch say that torture of detainees took place almost daily at FOB Mercury during their entire deployment there, from September 2003 to April 2004. While two of the soldiers also reported abuses at FOB Tiger, near the Syrian border, the most egregious incidents allegedly took place at FOB Mercury. The acts of torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment they described include severe beatings (in one incident, a soldier reportedly broke a detainee’s leg with a baseball bat), blows and kicks to the face, chest, abdomen, and extremities, and repeated kicks to various parts of the detainees’ bodies; the application of chemical substances to exposed skin and eyes; forced stress positions, such as holding heavy water jugs with arms outstretched, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness; sleep deprivation; subjecting detainees to extremes of hot and cold; the stacking of detainees into human pyramids; and the withholding of food (beyond crackers) and water.

According to Army Field Manual 19-4 covering enemy prisoner of war operations, military police have responsibility for safeguarding, accounting for, and maintaining captives. The soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that established procedure was violated by having frontline soldiers guard and prepare detainees for interrogation, instead of speeding detainees to a rear area where they would be looked after by trained military police.

Detainees in Iraq were consistently referred to as PUCs. This term was devised in Afghanistan to take the place of the traditional designation of prisoner of war (POW), after President Bush decided that the Geneva Conventions did not apply there. It carried over to Iraq, even though the US military command and the Bush administration have continually stated that the Geneva Conventions are in effect. Although not all persons captured on a battlefield are entitled to prisoner of war status, US military doctrine interprets the Geneva Conventions as requiring that all captured persons be treated as POWs unless and until a “competent tribunal” determines otherwise.5

Detainees at FOB Mercury were held in so-called PUC tents, which were separated from the rest of the base by concertina wire. Detainees typically spent three days at the base before being released or sent to Abu Ghraib. Officers in the Military Intelligence unit and officers in charge of the guards directed the treatment of detainees. Soldiers told us that detainees who did not cooperate with interrogators were sometimes denied water and given only crackers to eat, and were often beaten. There was little done to hide the mistreatment of detainees: one of the soldiers we interviewed observed torture when he brought newly captured Iraqis to the PUC tents.

The torture of detainees reportedly was so widespread and accepted that it became a means of stress relief for soldiers. Soldiers said they felt welcome to come to the PUC tent on their off-hours to “fuck a PUC” or “smoke a PUC.” “Fucking a PUC” referred to beating a detainee, while “smoking a PUC” referred to forced physical exertion sometimes to the point of unconsciousness. The soldiers said that when a detainee had a visible injury such as a broken limb due to “fucking” or “smoking,” an Army physician’s assistant would be called to administer an analgesic and fill out the proper paperwork. They said those responsible would state that the detainee was injured during the process of capture and the physician’s assistant would sign off on this. Broken bones occurred “every other week” at FOB Mercury.

Smoking” was not limited to stress relief but was central to the interrogation system employed by the 82nd Airborne Division at FOB Mercury. Officers and NCOs from the Military Intelligence unit would direct guards to “smoke” the detainees prior to an interrogation, and would direct that certain detainees were not to receive sleep, water, or food beyond crackers. Directed “smoking” would last for the twelve to twenty-four hours prior to an interrogation. As one soldier put it: “[The military intelligence officer] said he wanted the PUCs so fatigued, so smoked, so demoralized that they want to cooperate.”

The soldiers believed that about half of the detainees at Camp Mercury were released because they were not involved in the insurgency, but they left with the physical and mental scars of torture. “If he’s a good guy, you know, now he’s a bad guy because of the way we treated him,” one sergeant told Human Rights Watch.

The soldiers with whom Human Rights Watch spoke had served as guards in Afghanistan and had observed interrogations at FOB Tiger in Iraq, and said that civilian interrogators at those locations had also used coercive methods against prisoners. These interrogators were always referred to by the US military abbreviation OGA, which stands for “Other Government Agencies.” It was assumed that such persons were with the CIA, but because OGA also includes other civilian agencies, the soldiers with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said they could not be sure.

Soldiers generally had less direct access to OGA interrogations, in part because OGA personnel often took detainees to an isolated building and were generally more careful about being seen. But the soldiers who had watched OGA interrogations in Afghanistan said that soldiers applied in Iraq some of the techniques they learned from the OGA, including forced stress positions, sleep deprivation, and exposure. At FOB Tiger, the officer said, he heard the sounds of physical violence coming from rooms where OGA interrogations were being held, but without being present in the room could not know whether the sounds were real or simulated. The soldiers said that civilian interrogators sometimes removed prisoners from detention facilities and took the paperwork that indicated a detainee was being held, apparently “disappearing” that detainee.6

The officer who spoke to Human Rights Watch made persistent efforts to raise concerns he had with superior officers up the chain of command and to obtain clearer rules on the proper treatment of prisoners. When he raised the issue with superiors, he was consistently told to keep his mouth shut, turn a blind eye, or consider his career. When he sought clearer procedures from general officers, he was told merely to use his judgment.

Altogether this officer said he spent seventeen months trying to clarify rules for prisoner treatment while seeking a meaningful investigation. He explained at length how he openly had brought his complaint directly up the chain of command, from his direct commanding officer, to the division commander, to the judge advocate general’s (JAG) office, and finally to members of the US Congress. In many cases, he was encouraged to keep his concerns quiet; his brigade commander, for example, rebuffed him when he asked for an investigation into these allegations of abuse. He believes he was not taken seriously until he began to approach members of Congress, and, indeed, just days before the publication of this report he was told that he would not be granted a pass to meet on his day off with staff members of US Senators John McCain and John Warner. He said he was told that he was being naive and that he was risking his career.

Human Rights Watch welcomes reports that the Army has agreed to investigate the abuses discussed in this report. We are concerned, however, that those investigations will only focus on low-level soldiers and officers, instead of looking as far as necessary up the chain of command. We are also concerned that military personnel who come forward to report abuses will find their careers suffer, as their commanding officers implied they would, rather than be commended for doing their duty.

If FOB Mercury is not to become one more in an expanding series of US detention facilities associated with brutality and degrading treatment, further tarnishing the reputation of the US armed forces, the policy failures must be faced head-on and the most senior responsible officials held accountable.

Accordingly, Human Rights Watch urges the following:

�? The US attorney general should appoint a special counsel to investigate any US officials—no matter their rank or position—who have participated in, ordered, or had command responsibility for war crimes or torture, or other prohibited ill-treatment against detainees in US custody.7

�? The US Congress should create a special commission, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, to investigate the issue of detainee abuse by US military and civilian personnel abroad, including the incidents described here, as proposed in legislation sponsored by Senator Carl Levin.

�? Congress should enact legislation along the lines proposed by Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and John Warner, which would prohibit any forms of detainee treatment and interrogation not specifically authorized by the US Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation, and not consistent with the Convention Against Torture. Such legislation must cover not only military units but also civilian agencies involved in interrogations, such as the CIA.

�? The US Department of Defense should conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations made in this report at all levels of the chain of command. Such an investigation must not be limited to lower-ranking enlisted personnel and officers, but must include higher-ranking officers and civilian officials linked to policies that directed, encouraged, or tolerated such abuse. Measures should be taken to ensure that soldiers who bring forward credible allegations of detainee abuse are not in any way punished for their actions.

�? The 82nd Airborne Division should implement measures to ensure the immediate investigation of credible allegations of detainee abuse.

2.

The following is the first of three accounts in the Human Rights Watch report. Each of the soldiers was interviewed more than once. For the sake of clarity and to avoid repetition, Human Rights Watch has edited and rearranged specific passages in the accounts.

Account of Sergeant A, 82nd Airborne Division

(Sergeant A served in Afghanistan from September 2002 to March 2003 and in Iraq from August 2003 to April 2004. Human Rights Watch spoke with him on four separate occasions in July and August 2005.)

In retrospect what we did was wrong, but at the time we did what we had to do. Everything we did was accepted, everyone turned their heads.

We got to the camp in August [2003] and set up. We started to go out on missions right away. We didn’t start taking PUCs until September. Shit started to go bad right away. On my very first guard shift, for my first interrogation that I observed, was the first time I saw a PUC pushed to the brink of a stroke or heart attack. At first I was surprised, like, this is what we are allowed to do? This is what we are allowed to get away with? I think the officers knew about it but didn’t want to hear about it. They didn’t want to know it even existed. But they had to.

On a normal day I was on shift in a PUC tent. When we got these guys we had them sandbagged and zip tied, meaning we had a sandbag on their heads and zip ties [plastic cuffs] on their hands. We took their belongings and tossed them in the PUC tent. We were told why they were there. If I was told they were there sitting on IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices, homemade bombs] we would fuck them up, put them in stress positions, or put them in a tent and withhold water.

The “Murderous Maniacs” was what they called us at our camp because they knew if they got caught by us and got detained by us before they went to Abu Ghraib then it would be hell to pay. They would be just, you know, you couldn’t even imagine. It was sort of like I told you when they came in it was like a game. You know, how far could you make this guy go before he passes out or just collapses on you. From stress positions to keeping them up fucking two days straight, whatever. Deprive them of food, water, whatever.

To “fuck a PUC” means to beat him up. We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs, and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day.

To “smoke” someone is to put them in stress positions until they get muscle fatigue and pass out. That happened every day. Some days we would just get bored so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did that for amusement.

Guard shifts were four hours. We would stress them at least in excess of twelve hours. When I go off shift and the next guy comes we are already stressing the PUC and we let the new guy know what he did and to keep fucking him. We put five-gallon water cans and made them hold them out to where they got muscle fatigue then made them do pushups and jumping jacks until they passed out. We would withhold water for whole guard shifts. And the next guy would too. Then you gotta take them to the john if you give them water and that was a pain. And we withheld food, giving them the bare minimum like crackers from MREs [Meals Ready to Eat, the military’s prepackaged food]. And sleep deprivation was a really big thing.

Someone from [Military Intelligence] told us these guys don’t get no sleep. They were directed to get intel [intelligence] from them so we had to set the conditions by banging on their cages, crashing them into the cages, kicking them, kicking dirt, yelling. All that shit. We never stripped them down because this is an all-guy base and that is fucked up shit. We poured cold water on them all the time to where they were soaking wet and we would cover them in dirt and sand. We did the jugs of water where they held them out to collapse all the time. The water and other shit…start[ed] maybe late September, early October 2003. This was all at Camp Mercury, close to the MEK base8 like ten minutes from Fallujah. We would transport the PUCs from Mercury to Abu Ghraib.

None of this happened in Afghanistan. We had MPs [military police] attached to us in Afghanistan so we didn’t deal with prisoners. We had no MPs in Iraq. We had to secure prisoners. [Military Intelligence] wants to interrogate them and they had to provide guards so we would be the guards. I did missions every day and always came back with ten to fifteen prisoners. We were told by Intel that these guys were bad, but they could be wrong, sometimes they were wrong. I would be told, “These guys were IED trigger men last week.” So we would fuck them up. Fuck them up bad. If I was told the guy was caught with a 9mm [handgun] in his car we wouldn’t fuck them up too bad—just a little. If we were on patrol and catch a guy that killed my captain or my buddy last week—man, it is human nature. So we fucked them up bad. At the same time we should be held to a higher standard. I know that now. It was wrong. There are a set of standards. But you gotta understand, this was the norm. Everyone would just sweep it under the rug.

What you allowed to happen happened. Trends were accepted. Leadership failed to provide clear guidance so we just developed it. They wanted intel. As long as no PUCs came up dead it happened. We heard rumors of PUCs dying so we were careful. We kept it to broken arms and legs and shit. If a leg was broken you call the PA—the physician’s assistant—and told him the PUC got hurt when he was taken. He would get Motrin [a pain reliever] and maybe a sling, but no cast or medical treatment.

In Afghanistan we were attached to Special Forces9 and saw OGA. We never interacted with them but they would stress guys. We learned how to do it. We saw it when we would guard an interrogation. I was an Infantry Fire Team leader. The majority of the time I was out on mission. When not on mission I was riding the PUCs. We should have had MPs. We should have taken them to Abu Ghraib [which] was only fifteen fucking minutes drive. But there was no one to talk to in the chain—it just got killed. We would talk among ourselves, say, “This is bad.” But no one listened. We should never have been allowed to watch guys we had fought.

FOB Mercury was about as big as a football field. We had a battalion there with three or four companies and attachments. We lived in the buildings of an old Iraqi military compound that we built up with barriers, ACs [air conditioners], and stuff. We had civilian interpreters on post and contractors came every day to fix shit. The contractors were local Iraqis.

The PUCs lived in the PUC area about two hundred meters away. It had a triple-strength circle concertina barrier with tents in the middle with another triple-strength concertina perimeter. Inside each was a Hesco basket that is wire that normally has cloth in it. We filled them with dirt to make barriers and some we emptied and buried to use as access points for the Iraqis. This was all inside the confines of the FOB. There was a guard tower behind the PUC tent with two guards. One was always looking at the PUC tent. We never took direct fire but did take regular rocket and mortar attacks. We did not lose anyone but had shrapnel injuries.

On their day off people would show up all the time. Everyone in camp knew if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent. In a way it was sport. The cooks were all US soldiers. One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat. He was the fucking cook. He shouldn’t be in with no PUCs. The PA came and said to keep him off the leg. Three days later they transported the PUC to Abu Ghraib. The Louisville Slugger [incident] happened around November 2003, certainly before Christmas.

People would just volunteer just to get their frustrations out. We had guys from all over the base just come to guard PUCs so they could fuck them up. Broken bones didn’t happen too often, maybe every other week. The PA would overlook it. I am sure they knew.

The interrogator [a sergeant] worked in the [intelligence] office. He was former Special Forces. He would come into the PUC tent and request a guy by number. Everyone was tagged. He would say, “Give me #22.” And we would bring him out. He would smoke the guy and fuck him. He would always say to us, “You didn’t see anything, right?” And we would always say, “No, Sergeant.”

One day a soldier came to the PUC tent to get his aggravation out and filled his hands with dirt and hit a PUC in the face. He fucked him. That was the communications guy.

One night a guy came and broke chem lights10 open and beat the PUCs with it [sic]. That made them glow in the dark which was real funny but it burned their eyes and their skin was irritated real bad.

If a PUC cooperated Intel would tell us that he was allowed to sleep or got extra food. If he felt the PUC was lying he told us he doesn’t get any fucking sleep and gets no food except maybe crackers. And he tells us to smoke him. [Intel] would tell the lieutenant that he had to smoke the prisoners and that is what we were told to do. No sleep, water, and just crackers. That’s it. The point of doing all this was to get them ready for interrogation. [The intelligence officer] said he wanted the PUCs so fatigued, so smoked, so demoralized that they want to cooperate. But half of these guys got released because they didn’t do nothing. We sent them back to Fallujah. But if he’s a good guy, you know, now he’s a bad guy because of the way we treated him.

After Abu Ghraib things toned down. We still did it but we were careful. It is still going on now the same way, I am sure. Maybe not as blatant but it is how we do things.

Each company goes out on a mission and you kick the door down and catch them red-handed. We caught them with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. So we are going to give you special attention. We yank them off the truck and they hit the ground hard, maybe five to six feet down. We took everything and searched them. Then we toss him in the PUC tent with a sandbag on his head and he is zip tied. And he is like that all day and it is 100 degrees in that tent. Once paperwork was done we started to stress them. The five-gallon water can was full of water. We would have people hold out their arms on each side parallel to the ground. After a minute your arms get tired and shake. Then we would take some water out and douse them to get them cold. And the tent is full of dust and they get dirty and caked with it. Then we make them do pushups and jumping jacks. At the end of a guard shift they look like zombies.

We had these new high-speed trailer showers. One guy was the cleaner. He was an Iraqi contractor working on base. We were taking pretty accurate mortar fire and rockets and we were getting nervous. Well one day we found him with a GPS11 receiver and he is like calling in strikes on us! What the fuck!? We took him but we are pissed because he stabbed us in the back. So we gave him the treatment. We got on him with the jugs and doused him and smoked and fucked him.

3.

Conclusion

The abuses alleged in this report can be traced to the Bush administration’s decision to disregard the Geneva Conventions in the armed conflict in Afghanistan.

On February 7, 2002, President George W. Bush announced that the Geneva Conventions concerning the treatment of prisoners did not apply at all to al-Qaeda members or to Taliban soldiers because they did not qualify as members of the armed forces. He insisted that detainees would nonetheless be treated “humanely.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told journalists that day: “The reality is the set of facts that exist today with the al-Qaeda and the Taliban were not necessarily the set of facts that were considered when the Geneva Convention was fashioned.”

The accounts presented in this report are further evidence that this decision by the Bush administration was to have a profound influence on the treatment of detained persons in military operations in Iraq as well as in the “global war on terror.” In short, the refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions to Guantánamo Bay and Afghanistan was to undermine long-standing adherence by the US armed forces to federal law and the laws of armed conflict concerning the proper treatment of prisoners.

* * *

According to the 2004 Schlesinger Commission report, coercive interrogation methods approved by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld for use on prisoners at Guantánamo—including the use of guard dogs to induce fear in prisoners, stress techniques such as forced standing and shackling in painful positions, and removing their clothes for long periods—“migrated to Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were neither limited nor safeguarded,” and contributed to the widespread and systematic torture and abuse at US detention centers there.

Even after the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became public, Secretary Rumsfeld continued to dismiss the applicability of the Geneva Conventions. On May 5, 2004, he told a journalist the Geneva Conventions “did not apply precisely” in Iraq but were “basic rules” for handling prisoners. Visiting Abu Ghraib on May 13, Rumsfeld remarked, “Geneva doesn’t say what you do when you get up in the morning.” In fact, the US armed forces have devoted considerable energy over the years to making the Geneva Conventions fully operational by military personnel in the field. Various US military operational handbooks and manuals, such as Field Manual 27-10 on the Law of Land Warfare and Field Manual 34-52 on Intelligence Interrogation, provide the means for implementing Geneva Conventions provisions, even where those provisions are vague.

* * *

Even if the Geneva Conventions were not applicable, various provisions of the US Uniform Code of Military Justice subject soldiers to court-martial or disciplinary measures for mistreating prisoners. Applicable UCMJ criminal provisions include article 93 (cruelty and maltreatment), article 128 (assault), and articles 118 and 119 (murder and manslaughter), as well as article 120 (rape and carnal knowledge), article 124 (maiming), and, for officers, article 133 (conduct unbecoming an officer). Superior officers who order the mistreatment of prisoners or who knew or should have known that such mistreatment was occurring and did not take appropriate measures can be prosecuted as a matter of command responsibility.

The treatment of prisoners alleged here also violates US obligations under international human rights law. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment provides that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also bans torture and other mistreatment, ensures that the right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment can never be suspended by a state, including during periods of public emergency.

These standards have largely been incorporated into US law that is applicable to members of the armed services. The War Crimes Act of 1996 (18 USC § 2441) makes it a criminal offense for US military personnel and US nationals to commit war crimes as specified in the Geneva Conventions. The federal anti-torture statute (18 USC § 2340A), enacted in 1994, provides for the prosecution of a US national or anyone present in the United States who, while outside the United States, commits or attempts to commit torture.

Human Rights Watch calls for investigations into all allegations of mistreatment of prisoners in US custody. Appropriate disciplinary or criminal action should be undertaken against all those implicated in torture and other abuse, whatever their rank. As we have reported elsewhere, there is increasing evidence that high-ranking US civilian and military leaders made decisions and issued policies that facilitated serious and widespread violations of the law. The circumstances strongly suggest that they either knew or should have known that such violations took place as a result of their actions. There is also mounting information that, when presented with evidence that abuse was in fact occurring, they failed to act to stop it.

Human Rights Watch reiterates its call for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate any US officials—no matter their rank or position—who participated in, ordered, or had command responsibility for war crimes or torture, or other prohibited ill-treatment against detainees in US custody.

  1. 1

    Person Under Control” or PUC (pronounced “puck”) is the term used by US military forces to refer to Iraqi detainees. For the complete text of the report, with footnotes not included here, see hrw.org.

  2. 2

    FOB Mercury is located approximately ten miles east of Fallujah, which was a center of the insurgency at the time. US forces came under intense attacks in and around Fallujah, placing them under constant pressure and at high risk in daily combat. As soon as the 82nd pulled out of FOB Mercury in April 2004, the US Marines that replaced the 82nd undertook a major offensive against insurgents in Fallujah.

  3. 3

    See Human Rights Watch, “Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the US Abuse of Detainees,” April 2005, Section II: “A World of Abuse,” available at hrw.org/reports/2005/us0405/4.htm#_Toc101408092. See also “Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the Treatment by the Coalition Forces of Prisoners of War and Other Protected Persons,” February 2004, available at www.health-now.org/mediafiles/mediafile50.pdf (describing detainee abuse in locations across Iraq, including sites in Baghdad, al-Khaïm, Tikrit, Ramadi, and at Abu Ghraib, at p. 7); Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt, “The Conflict in Iraq: Detainees; US Military Says 26 Inmate Deaths May Be Homicide,” The New York Times, March 16, 2005 (describing cases of detainee homicide occurring in areas across Afghanistan and Iraq). On Iraq-related abuses, see Major General Antonio M. Taguba, “Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade,” March 2004 (describing “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib prison, constituting “systematic and illegal abuse of detainees,” at p. 16).

  4. 4

    See Timothy Flanigan, written responses to questions submitted by US Senator Richard Durbin, following Flanigan’s confirmation hearing to be deputy attorney general of the United States on July 26, 2005. Flanigan, who was deputy White House counsel when President Bush issued his order requiring “humane treatment” of detainees, stated: “I do not believe the term ‘inhumane’ treatment is susceptible to succinct definition.” In a further exchange with Senator Durbin, Flanigan stated: “I am not aware of any guidance provided by the White House specifically related to the meaning of ‘inhumane treatment.’”

  5. 5

    Operational Law Handbook, edited by Major J. Berger, Major Derek Grims, and Major Eric Jensen (International and Operational Law Department, Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, 2004), p. 26.

  6. 6

    According to the UN Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (1992), enforced disappearances occur when

    persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government,…followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.

  7. 7

    To allow the special prosecutor to have full authority to investigate and prosecute both federal law and Uniform Code of Military Justice violations, the secretary of defense should appoint a consolidated convening authority for all armed services, to cooperate with the appointed civilian special prosecutor.

  8. 8

    Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq, which has a base in Iraq.

  9. 9

    The 82nd Airborne Division provided support to Special Operations Forces during operations in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003.

  10. 10

    Chem lights refer to chemical light sticks. While we do not know the exact composition of the ones allegedly used in Iraq, these lights are typically made of a hydrogen peroxide solution mixed with a phenyl oxalate ester and dye for color. Information available at science.howstuffworks.com/light-stick2.htm.

  11. 11

    A GPS, or global positioning system receiver, provides the user with location data derived from satellites. This data may be used to target weapons, as the soldier alleges.

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