Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Serious revelations obscured by Pvt England conviction

The conviction of Lyndie England, the low-ranking reservist seen smiling in Abu Ghraib photos and holding detainees on a leash, dominated the media in the past couple of days, obscuring important revelations about the Army's 82nd Airborne division operating in Iraq.

What seems to matter more in the American media is the "how could she [the girl nextdoor]?" story, and not the "how could the chain of command have allowed this to happen?" story.

After attempting to deal with the issue for over 17 months in-house, approaching even the Secretary of the Army, Captain Ian Fishback of the 82nd Airborne's 1st battalion, 504 company, and two of his soldiers, approached Human Rights Watch in an effort to bring about accountability for serious abuses they witnessed in Iraq. HRW released a full reporting of their allegations on Friday.

Their story hit major American newspapers over the weekend, and received seemingly little attention.

Capt Fishback and his colleagues report that detainees at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mercury, near Fallujah, were used as a stress-release by enlisted men of all kinds. In one particular incident, one of the whistleblowing soldiers witnessed a cook break a detainee's leg with a metal baseball bat.

They claim that the soldiers learned that it was acceptable to "fuck" (i.e. beat up) and "smoke" (i.e. bring to collapse through forced physical exertion) from their time in Afghanistan. There they witnessed "other government agencies" (OGA) interrogators trampling the Geneva Conventions. One soldier reports that at one time, a CIA interrogator asked for a head-count of detainees in custody of the 82nd 1/504, and when given the answer "17," the interrogator asked that one detainee be pulled and handed over. The CIA interrogator left with the detainee saying, "now you have 16." The whistleblowing soldier does not know what happened to this 17th detainee.

Capt. Fishback and others struggled during their Afghanistan and Iraq deployments to clarify the rules for detention and interrogation, and to denounce the repeated abuse of detainees. They were told repeatedly, up the chain of command, that the situation was being "investigated," but never received any clarification or help in stopping the abuse problem in the field.

This story has received some attention on blogs, and in the halls of Congress, where Capt. Fishback met with staff aides of the Senate SArmed Services Committee. The US Army subsequently denied him leave to meet Senators John McCain (AZ) and John Warner (VA), members of the Committee.

However, it seems the "mainstream" media is satisfied to entirely drop the issue of accountability and command responsibility. Thankfully, certain men in uniform are not going to be silenced that easily.

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Friday, September 23, 2005

US touts "soft-knock" policy in Afghanistan

Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, the U.S.-led coalition's operational commander in Afghanistan, has responded publicly to recent, repeated complaints by President Hamid Karzai about the US military presence in his country.

In response to claims that US-led searches and bombing campaigns were unnecessary and abusive, Kamiya said that bombing has been decisive and accurate, and that searches are now always jointly conducted with Afghan troops. Additionally, Kamiya touted the US "soft-knock" policy:

"When we do have to violate the sanctity of an Afghan family's compound, we do so in a soft-knock manner, a very courteous manner, asking permission first and having Afghan forces doing the searches," he said.

"Of course, there are some operations, because of intelligence or time sensitivity or the nature of the target that we are after, (that) preclude this level of coordination. But those instances are becoming less frequent."

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Danish parliament investigates Kandahar abuse

Last week, the English-language Copenghagen Post reported that the Danish parliament has asked Defence Minister Søren Gade for a full explanation of what Danish military knew about reported abuses of prisoners at Camp Kandahar, a base they shared with American troops as early as 2002. Sources have alleged that Danish officers were alerted to abuses committed in interrogations conducted by American forces by a Danish interpreter as early as 2002. The Danish military has maintained until now that it only learned of alleged abuses in 2004, and they say that neither Danish nor American investigators have found 'evidence' of abuse. (Despite the graphic account of ex-Guantanamo detainees, especially Moroccan national Mohammad Mazouz.)

The interrogations were daily, conducted by Americans with Arab translators who collaborated with them. That took place in the tents, in the presence of all the other detainees and often, at the beginning we were beaten, face on the ground, by insane soldiers, before starting to answer the questions. There was a precise technique which consisted of throwing the detainee on the ground, to jump on his back and to crash his shoulder before beating him. Many among us had fractured scapulas and had to face cold and hunger, without medication until the departure for Guantanamo. The interrogation could go on for interminable hours. There, they used exceptional measures for torture. First of all there were the electric shocks that hurt us to an unparalleled degree. Then, they threw us in large water barrels to drown us. They had also the vice to put dirty trollops, filled with all that you can imagine of disgusting material, on the mouth and the face. We were held with no prayer, no food, no water, no clothes, without a blanket, for days.

The interpreter in question asked for psychological leave after claiming to have been disturbed by the abuses and tortures witnessed at Camp Kandahar.

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Friday, September 16, 2005

Internal Army documents detail poor training

The ACLU is releasing 1,800 pages of internal army documents that were used for the investigation of Army inspector general Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek into incidents of abuse. The documents were obtained as a result of the ACLU's on-going FOIA suit with the US government. According to the LA Times, the documents detail two shooting deaths of prisoners — whose hands were bound — at the hands of US soldiers. Mikolashek's report [pdf] found 94 cases of abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan as of July 2004.

Yet Mikolashek did not find systematic failures or pattern of widespread abuse, even though the newly-released 1,800 pages of evidence accompanying the report tell a different story.

Often, due to lack of trained interrogators, during missions, untrained officers were forced to conduct in-the-field interrogations. Acccording to testimony in the documents, the untrained often resorted to techniques seen in the movies.

According to Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, "Our government has failed, and the blame is on Washington, not Hollywood."

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Iraqi justice minister speaks out

The Iraqi Justice minister, Abdul Hussein Shandal, spoke out yesterday strongly against the unlimited power of the occupying forces to detain Iraqis. This following the recent offensive in Tal Afar, and the news that Sunni leaders are calling for the release of thousands of Sunni men in US detention before the constitutional referendum.

In strong language, Shandal said that Multi National Forces had committed human rights abuses in their detentions in Iraq. He claimed that the immunity conferred on the invading forces by the UN Security Council resolution 1546 allows them continual and full immunity from prosecution.

And this, according to the Minister, compromises Iraqi sovereignty, and he complained that US suggestions that Iraqis had an equal say in detention are misleading.

Additionally, Minister Shandal spoke out against the detention of journalists by US forces.

Shandal, however, said journalists needed special protection and defended independent reporting from all sides, including from rebel-held areas. He insisted on journalists' right to film and interview Iraq's insurgents without fear of arrest or worse.

"In this time of conflict ... between terrorists and the army or Multinational Forces, the journalist comes to the fore.

"Full freedom should be given to journalists to take pictures and film in the field," he said. "Without images what would we know of history? ... We would know nothing."

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Mass arrest relies on masked informants

This amazing piece from Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Finer illustrates how the Iraqi-US "justice system" operates in a conflict situation, picking detainees by doubtful methods.

TALL AFAR, Iraq, Sept. 12 -- A masked teenager in an Iraqi army uniform walked slowly through a crowd of 400 detainees captured Monday, studying each face and rendering his verdict with a simple hand gesture, like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of gladiators.

A thumb pointed down meant the suspect was not thought to be an insurgent and would be released by U.S. soldiers. A thumb pointed up meant a man would be removed from the concertina wire-encased pen, handcuffed with tape or plastic ties and taken by truck to a military base to be interrogated.

"Another bad guy right here," an American interpreter shouted when the masked Iraqi singled out a man in a yellow dishdasha , or traditional gown, who shook his head and protested in Turkish. A captive who was spared exhaled with relief and placed his hand on his heart.

This is how the 10-day-old invasion of Tall Afar unfolded Monday. After two days of relatively uneventful patrols in the abandoned neighborhood of Sarai, where commanders had expected insurgents to be massed for a fight, U.S. and Iraqi forces turned north in the morning, to neighborhoods they had already cleared, and found hundreds of men who appeared to be of military age and fighters believed to have slipped through their cordons. [...]

Just after 7 a.m., they streamed into the adjoining neighborhoods of Hassan Koy and Uruba, taking every military-age man into custody at a makeshift pen established by U.S. forces along a main road. The U.S. soldiers uncoiled enough concertina wire to hold an expected 50 or so men. But as detainees streamed out from the neighborhoods, the pens were expanded with more coils of wire until the holding area stretched an entire block. [...]

By 8 a.m., nearly 400 people were assembled, squatting or seated in the dirt beside the road. Two of the men had bloodied faces and spots of red soaking through their green dishdashas.

"They tried to grab my father, and I said, 'He is old, you don't need to take him,' " said one of the men, whose upper lip and right ear were swollen and bleeding. "They hit us with their fists and their rifles."

Many of the men's hands were bound so tightly with plastic cuffs that their circulation was cut off, so U.S. soldiers cut the bindings and instead wrapped their hands with thick green tape. [...]

After about two hours, the informant arrived. Wearing tan camouflage fatigues, a flak jacket, a green ski mask and green helmet, the informant said he was from the neighborhood and was under 20 years old.

"I am doing this because I want to see the fear and violence leave Tall Afar," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

With a U.S. interpreter, he perused the crowd, pausing for less than two seconds to consider each man's fate. He never spoke a word aloud, only whispering occasionally to the interpreter.

After drawing out 52 suspects from the group, he spent longer assessing each of them in depth and providing more detailed information about their activities. He identified a man with a split lip and wearing a purple shirt and filthy white pants as "a beheader," saying he had killed at least 10 people.

"Cuts heads," Capt. Noah Hanners, leader of Blue Platoon in the 3rd ACR's Eagle Troop, wrote in blue marker on the man's forearm.

"You get treated special, buddy. Congratulations," Hanners said.

After conferring with the informant, the interpreter wrote on the white T-shirt of a man who had no identification papers: "His name is Nafe, but he is giving a different name."

Four others were identified as local insurgent cell leaders known as emirs, and "emir" was written on their arms. Several men had eagle tattoos on their arms, which the informant said indicated they were former members of the Fedayeen Saddam, a reputedly brutal militia run by Hussein's son, Uday. The informant slapped one man's tattoo, and when the man protested, an Iraqi soldier smacked him across the face with the back of his hand.

"Don't be slapping them," Hanners warned. "That's not how we do this."

Some of the American soldiers taunted the detainees by asking them, "Can you say Abu Ghraib?" referring to the prison west of Baghdad from which photographs of prisoner abuse emerged last year.

"No, Guantanamo," one smiling captive responded, referring to the U.S. military prison in Cuba where suspected terrorists are held. "I just don't want to go to the Iraqi army or police."

"Your source is not good, these are all innocent men," said a detainee wearing a gray dishdasha, who said he was a student in the city of Mosul, 40 miles to the east. "We are all Sunnis. That is why he chose us. He is Shia," he said, referring to the informant. Hanners said the quality of the informants has varied widely. "Some seem to say what they think you want to hear," he said. "Others give us information that pans out."

Another soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he would be punished by commanders for his criticism, had a more negative view of the sources' performance. "We almost never get anything good from them," he said. "I think they just pick people from another tribe or people who owe them money or something."

Before boarding trucks and returning to their base, the Kurdish soldiers lined up behind the detainees and posed for digital pictures. They threw packages of food and bottles of water to a large group of children assembled across the road, many of whose fathers had been detained.

Some children picked up the gifts, but several grabbed them and threw them at the departing army vehicles. One truck quickly stopped and a soldier got out and pointed his pistol at the children, causing them to scatter briefly, before he drove away.

Soldiers and some neighborhood children gave the detainees food and water as they waited in the 100-degree heat for trucks to arrive to transport them to Camp Sykes. A woman in a long purple dress and white head scarf shouted at the remaining soldiers in Turkish, and others began to gather behind her.

"I give this 30 minutes before it gets out of hand," said Sgt. 1st Class Herbet Gadsden, surveying the scene. "We have to get these people out of here before their families go nuts."

At noon, two trucks arrived. Soldiers lined up the detainees, photographed each one with a digital camera and loaded them aboard. The crowd of family members faded back into their homes.

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First Army Officer charged in abuses cases

The first ever US military officer faces criminal charges in relation to abuses committed in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. AP reports that Capt. Christopher M. Beiring faces charges of dereliction of duty and making a false statement in relation to his unit's abuse and beating deaths of two Afghan detainees in Bagram in 2002.

Another two of his soldiers were also charged Tuesday, bringing the total number of soldiers from Cincinnati's 377th Military Police Company to eleven. Two were acquitted last week.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

NYT blasts 'phony investigations & stonewalling'

In one of the strongest editorials of any US paper on the issue of abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guatanamo, The New York Times strongly criticized the Bush administration late last week. Impunity and lack of accountability are the main issues.

The American public needs answers about the prisons, and it is simply not acceptable that a few low-level reservists go to jail while the civilian lawyers who wrote the torture policies get promoted and the general who devised the interrogations escapes even the mildest rebuke. [...]

No amount of concern about terrorism gives [the US government] the power to detain innocent people or brutalize even those who are guilty. That is why this nation has laws, courts and judges. We can never be sure any new laws will be enforced until we know the truth about how the old ones were swept aside.

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Monday, September 12, 2005

Biggest sentence yet for abuse: 1 year

There are few details available about the conviction of California Guardsman Sgt. David Fimon. He was sentenced late last week to one year of detention and discharged with bad-conduct according to wire services for abuses committed in Baghdad this year. His sentence is the most severe of any handed down by military justice yet — more so that those for Abu Ghraib or the Bagram homicides.

It is rather stunning, then, that the media has paid so little attention to this case. From what we can gather from an earlier LA Times investigation, the abuse charges against Sgt. Fimon are related to a bigger investigation into extortion and abuse by the 1st battaltion of the 184th infantry regiment based in Baghdad.

According to the Times, nearly 20 soldiers are under investigation for exorting illegal "rents" from Baghdad business owners, and for an incident involving the cruel and unnecessary application of stun guns this June.

The commanding officer of the 1/184th was featured by the LA Times in a very unfavorable light last month.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Acquittal in 2nd Bagram homicide

Another member, Sgt. Christopher Greatorex, of the 377th Military Police company based in Cincinnati was acquitted today on abuse charges. Even though the prosecution had sworn testimony from another soldier in the room during the beatings which led to prisoner Habibullah's death, the military panel acquitted the Reservist.

Sgt. Greatorex's defense claimed that the witness had mixed him up with another soldier and accused her of trying to "cover" for other soldiers.

The prosecution is quoted by the Houston Chronicle as saying, ""I really don't have any idea what those panel members were thinking."

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