Army file details brutal deaths of Afghan detainees 

By Tim Golden 

05/20/05 "New York Times"
- - NEW YORK: - Even as the young Afghan man was dying before them, his American jailers continued to torment him.

The prisoner, a slight, 22-year-old taxi driver known only as Dilawar, was hauled from his cell at the detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan, about 2 a.m. to answer questions about a rocket attack on an American base. When he arrived in the interrogation room, an interpreter who was present said, his legs were bouncing uncontrollably in the plastic chair and his hands were numb. He had been chained by the wrists to the top of his cell for much of the previous four days.

An interrogator told Dilawar that he could see a doctor after they finished with him. When he was finally sent back to his cell, though, the guards were instructed only to chain the prisoner back to the ceiling. 

Several hours passed before an emergency room doctor finally saw Dilawar. By then he was dead, his body beginning to stiffen. 

It would be many months before army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Dilawar was an innocent man who had simply driven his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.

The story of Dilawar's brutal death at the Bagram Collection Point - and that of another detainee, Habibullah, who died there six days earlier in December 2002 - emerge from a nearly 2,000-page file of the army's criminal investigation into the case, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.

Like a narrative counterpart to the digital images from Abu Ghraib, the Bagram file depicts young, poorly trained soldiers repeatedly abusing prisoners. The harsh treatment, which has resulted in criminal charges against seven soldiers, went well beyond the two deaths.

In some instances, testimony shows, it was directed or carried out by interrogators to extract information. In others, it was punishment meted out by military police guards. Sometimes, the torment seems to have been driven by little more than boredom or cruelty, or both.

The Times obtained a copy of the file from a person involved in the investigation who was critical of both the methods used at Bagram and the military's response to the deaths.

Although incidents of prisoner abuse at Bagram in 2002, including some details of the two men's deaths, have been previously reported, American officials have characterized them as isolated problems that were thoroughly investigated. 

Yet the Bagram file includes ample testimony that harsh treatment by some interrogators was routine and that guards could strike shackled detainees with virtual impunity. 

Even though military investigators learned soon after Dilawar's death that he had been abused by at least two interrogators, the army's criminal inquiry moved slowly. Meanwhile, many of the Bagram interrogators, led by Captain Carolyn Wood, were redeployed to Iraq and in July 2003 took charge of interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison. According to a high-level army inquiry last year, Wood instituted harsh techniques there, including stripping prisoners, depriving them of sleep and using dogs to frighten them, that were "remarkably similar" to those used at Bagram.

Last October, the army's Criminal Investigation Command concluded that there was probable cause to charge 27 officers and enlisted personnel with criminal offenses in the Dilawar case, ranging from dereliction of duty to maiming and involuntary manslaughter. Fifteen of the same soldiers were also cited for probable criminal responsibility in the Habibullah case.

So far, only seven soldiers have been charged, including four last week. No one has been convicted in either death. Two army interrogators were also reprimanded, a military spokesman said. Most of those who could still face legal action have denied wrongdoing, either in statements to investigators or in comments to a reporter.

With most of the legal action pending, the story of abuses at Bagram remains incomplete. But documents and interviews reveal a striking disparity between the findings of Army investigators and what senior military officials said in the aftermath of the deaths.

Military spokesmen maintained that both men had died of natural causes, even after military coroners had ruled the deaths homicides. 

The Bagram Collection Point was a clearinghouse for prisoners captured in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. It typically held between 40 and 80 detainees while they were interrogated and screened for possible shipment to the Pentagon's longer-term detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

A new interrogation unit arrived in July 2002. Only two of its members had ever questioned prisoners. 

"There was nothing that prepared us for running an interrogation operation" like the one at Bagram, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the interrogators, Staff Sergeant Steven Loring, later told investigators.

The detainee known as Person Under Control No. 412 was a portly, well-groomed Afghan named Habibullah.

He was identified at Bagram as an important prisoner and an unusually sharp-tongued and insubordinate one. One of the guards, Sergeant Alan Driver Jr., told investigators that Habibullah had risen after a rectal examination and kneed him in the groin.

On his second day, Dec. 1, the prisoner was "uncooperative" again, this time with Specialist Willie Brand. The guard, who has since been charged with assault and other crimes, told investigators he had delivered three peroneal strikes, potentially disabling blows to the side of the leg, just above the knee, in response. 

By Dec. 3, Habibullah's reputation for defiance seemed to make him an open target. One guard said he had given him five peroneal strikes for being "noncompliant and combative." Another gave him three or four more for being "combative and noncompliant." Some guards later asserted that he had been hurt trying to escape.

When Sergeant James Boland saw Habibullah on Dec. 3, the prisoner was in one of the isolation cells, tethered to the ceiling by two sets of handcuffs and a chain around his waist. His body was slumped forward, held up by the chains.

When Boland returned to the cell about 20 minutes later, he said, Habibullah was not moving and had no pulse.

Finally, the prisoner was unchained and laid out on the floor of his cell.

Habibullah died on Dec. 3. His autopsy showed bruises or scrapes on his chest, arms, head and neck. There were deep bruises on his calves, knees and thighs. His left calf had been marked by what appeared to have been the sole of a boot.

His death was attributed to a blood clot, probably caused by the severe injuries to his legs, which traveled to his heart and blocked the blood flow to his lungs.

On Dec. 5, Dilawar arrived at Bagram.

Four days before, on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, Dilawar set out from his tiny village of Yakubi in a prized new possession, a used Toyota sedan that his family bought for him a few weeks earlier to drive as a taxi.

After picking up three passengers, he passed a base used by American troops, Camp Salerno, which had been the target of a rocket attack that morning.

Militiamen loyal to the guerrilla commander guarding the base, Jan Baz Khan, stopped the Toyota at a checkpoint. 

Dilawar and his passengers were detained and turned over to American soldiers at the base as suspects in the attack. The three passengers were eventually flown to Guantánamo.

Dilawar was sent to Bagram and soon labeled "noncompliant." One of the guards, Specialist Corey Jones, said the prisoner spat in his face and started kicking him. Jones responded, he said, with a couple of knee strikes to the leg of the shackled man.

"He screamed out, 'Allah! Allah! Allah!' and my first reaction was that he was crying out to his god," Jones said to investigators. "Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny."

"It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out 'Allah,"' he said. "It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes."

By the time Dilawar was brought in for his final interrogation in the first hours of Dec. 10, he appeared exhausted and was babbling that his wife had died. He also told the interrogators that he had been beaten by the guards.

When Dilawar was unable to kneel, said the interpreter, Ali Baryalai, the interrogators pulled him to his feet and pushed him against the wall.

"It looked to me like Dilawar was trying to cooperate, but he couldn't physically perform the tasks," Baryalai said.

Soon afterward he was dead. 

The findings of Dilawar's autopsy were succinct. He had had some coronary artery disease, the medical examiner reported, but what killed him was the same sort of "blunt force trauma to the lower extremities" that had led to Habibullah's death.

One of the coroners later translated the assessment at a pre-trial hearing for Brand, saying the tissue in the young man's legs "had basically been pulpified."

"I've seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus," the coroner, Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Rouse, added.

After the second death, several of the army interrogators were temporarily removed from their posts. On orders from the Bagram intelligence chief, interrogators were prohibited from any physical contact with the detainees. Chaining prisoners to any fixed object was also banned, and the use of stress positions was curtailed.

In February, a U.S. military official disclosed that the Afghan guerrilla commander whose men had arrested Dilawar and his passengers had been detained. The commander was suspected of attacking Camp Salerno and then turning over innocent "suspects" to the Americans in a ploy to win their trust, the military official said.

The three passengers in Dilawar's taxi were sent home from Guantánamo in March 2004, 15 months after their capture, with letters saying they posed "no threat" to American forces. 

Ruhallah Khapalwak, Carlotta Gall and David Rohde contributed reporting for this article, and Alain Delaqueriere assisted with research.

Copyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune 

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Information Clearing House endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

Join our Daily News Headlines Email Digest

Fill out your emailaddress
to receive our newsletter!
Powered by

Information Clearing House

Daily News Headlines Digest