For five years as a researcher for Human Rights Watch and reporter, John Sifton helped investigate homicides resulting from the Bush administration’s torture policy. His findings include:
• An estimated 100 detainees have died during interrogations, some who were clearly tortured to death.
• The Bush Justice Department failed to investigate and prosecute alleged murders even when the CIA inspector general referred a case.
• Sifton’s request for specific information on cases was rebuffed by the Bush Justice Department, though it was “familiar with the cases.”
• Attorney General Eric Holder must now decide whether to investigate and prosecute homicides, not just cases of torture.
A simple fact is being overlooked in the Bush-era torture scandal: the number of cases in which detainees have been tortured to death. Abuse did not only involve the high-profile cases of smashing detainees into plywood barriers (“walling”), confinement in coffin-like boxes with insects, sleep deprivation, cold, and waterboarding. To date approximately 100 detainees, including CIA-held detainees, have died during U.S. interrogations, and some are known to have been tortured to death.
The bottom line is that many detainee homicides in Iraq and Afghanistan were the direct result of approval and orders from the highest levels of government, and that high officials in the government are accomplices.
A review of homicide cases, however, shows that few detainee deaths have been properly investigated. Many were not investigated at all. And no official investigation has looked into the connection between detainee deaths and the interrogation policies promulgated by the Bush administration.
Yet an important report by the Senate Armed Services Committee, declassified in April 2009, explains in clear terms how Bush-era interrogation techniques, including torture, once authorized for CIA high-value detainees, were promulgated to Guantánamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where (as reporter Jason Leopold recently noted at The Public Record) the policies have led to homicides.
The killings, at least some of them, have hardly been kept secret. As early as May-June 2003, The New York Times and Washington Post reported on deaths of detainees in Afghanistan. Two detainees at Bagram air base died after extensive beatings by U.S. troops in December 2002—a case reported by The New York Times and that was also the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. Another death involved a man beaten to death by a CIA contractor at a base in Asadabad, in eastern Afghanistan, in June 2003.
In September 2004, the Crimes of War Project, working with investigative journalist Craig Pyes, uncovered a torture murder in Gardez, Afghanistan, in March 2003. Jamal Naseer, a soldier in the Afghan Army, died after he and seven other soldiers were mistakenly arrested. Those arrested with Naseer later said that during interrogations U.S. personnel punched and kicked them, hung them upside down, and hit them with sticks or cables. Some said they were doused with cold water and forced to lie in the snow. Nasser collapsed about two weeks after the arrest, complaining of stomach pain, probably an internal hemorrhage.
In May 2005, as a researcher for Human Rights Watch, I reported on several other cases of torture homicides, including a case in which the military claimed a detainee had died because he was “ bitten by a snake.”
To the best of my knowledge, the first death of a U.S. detainee in custody occurred in August 2002—an Afghan detainee named Mohammad Sayari killed by four U.S. military personnel. I first learned about the Sayari case in 2005, reading through a Department of Defense document obtained via a Freedom of Information Act case by the American Civil Liberties Union. The document contained a short description of the incident: A captain and three sergeants “murdered Mr. [Sayari] after detaining him for following their movements in Afghanistan.” The section of the document detailing the result of the investigation was redacted.
More than three years after the murder, human-rights groups and I pressed the military for an explanation. The Army revealed that commanders had declined to prosecute any of the four men implicated in the case, although one of the four soldiers received an “administrative reprimand.” In 2006, additional documents obtained by the ACLU disclosed that the Army investigation had found probable cause to recommend charges of murder and conspiracy against the four Special Forces soldiers. According the investigation, the four soldiers had captured the detainee, a civilian noncombatant, and shot him, presumably after interrogating him. (Investigators also recommended dereliction-of-duty charges against three of the men and a charge of obstruction of justice against the highest-ranking, a captain, who admitted to destroying evidence of the crime.) Inexplicably, without a court martial, the case was closed. The captain received a letter of reprimand for “destroying evidence.”