Detainees killed prisoners by assault
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3rd of detainees who died were assaulted
By Tom Squitieri and Dave Moniz, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — More than a third of the prisoners who died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan were shot, strangled or beaten by U.S. personnel before they died, according to death certificates and a high-ranking U.S. military official.
The military official, who has direct knowledge of ongoing Pentagon investigations of the deaths, said that 15 of 37 prisoners who have died since December 2002 appear to have been killed or put in grave danger by U.S. troops or interrogators. In some cases, the immediate cause of death was listed as a heart attack, but that was in turn caused by a beating. (Related item: Evidence of abuse abounds)
Some of the cases have been cleared. Four of the 15 deaths occurred when guards shot detainees in Iraq during a prison riot at Abu Ghraib prison in November 2003; the shootings have been ruled justifiable homicides.
In another case, a guard who shot a prisoner to death for throwing rocks at him was demoted and dishonorably discharged.
But other cases remain in limbo. The military is investigating eight deaths as "suspicious." The numbers don't appear to add up, but the Pentagon has not yet provided a detailed list of all the cases. Many of the deaths that don't seem to have been caused directly by U.S. personnel have been attributed by medical examiners to natural causes.
Nonetheless, at least three patterns have emerged so far:
•Six prisoners died from "blunt force trauma" or excessive force on the part of captors or prison guards, including two within a week of one another at the same prison. Two prisoners at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, died of complications Dec. 3 and Dec. 10, 2002, after being struck forcefully on their legs by guards or interrogators, military records show. One death certificate said the leg beating "complicat(ed) coronary artery disease," and the other certificate said the beating led to a "pulmonary embolism," or an artery blockage in the lungs that is often caused by a blood clot.
•At least four prisoners died in Iraq from strangulation, asphyxia, smothering or "compromised respiration," including Abid Mowhosh, a major general who headed Iraq's air defenses, whose death certificate says he died from "asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression."
•At least nine prisoners died in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib prison — including five in August 2003 — as the result of heart disease or heat-related problems. The five deaths occurred in Baghdad over a 15-day period, when temperatures soared between 120-130 degrees.
In one case, a detainee named Tariq Mohamed Zaid died Aug. 22, 2003, in what military medical examiners originally called a "heat-related incident." But now the circumstances of Zaid's death are being re-examined, and investigators are trying to determine whether U.S. troops gave him enough water and proper care, the high-ranking military official said.
If Zaid's death or others previously classified as due to natural causes prove to be the result of negligence, U.S. troops could face charges.
The death cases have come under increased scrutiny in the past month since the Pentagon acknowledged that U.S. soldiers abused detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and at other detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the wake of a scandal that has damaged American credibility and threatened the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, the Army is re-evaluating some of the death cases, including one where an investigation appears to have exonerated U.S. personnel for the death of an Afghan prisoner. In that case, the prisoner was delivered to U.S. forces already mortally wounded, and died in American custody. The case was initially ruled as a homicide while in U.S. custody, but may be changed given the prisoner's grave condition at the time he was handed over, the high-ranking military official said.
Last week, the Pentagon posted on its Web site death certificates for 23 of the 37 prisoners who have died in U.S. custody. Of the 37 deaths, 32 died in Iraq over 12 months and five in Afghanistan over 18 months.
No U.S. soldiers have been criminally charged in any of the deaths, though in one case a soldier was discharged. Two Marines face courts-martial for their roles in the strangulation death of 52-year-old Naem Sadoon Hatab at the Camp Whitehorse detention facility near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on June 6, 2003.
The death probes being conducted by Army criminal investigators are centered on Army, Marine and Navy personnel as well as contractors and CIA interrogators.
In all, about 42,000 prisoners have been detained in Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2002. The vast majority of the more than 41,000 prisoners detained in Iraq have been released.