The number of reported detainee abuse cases against U.S. Army soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan declined sharply after the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison came to light last spring, with incident reports dropping more than 75 percent from April 2004 to the end of last year and the number of death investigations also waning.
According to an Army report obtained by The Washington Post, 208 abuse cases were reported to have occurred between the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and May 2004, when the Abu Ghraib abuses made international news. The reported abuse cases peaked in April 2004, when there were 25 cases, including four deaths. The numbers fell consistently through December, when the Army learned of six abuse cases. The Army data are complete through the end of 2004.
Army and Defense Department officials said the decrease in reported cases is the result of lessons learned from Abu Ghraib and a tightening of U.S. detention practices since. Although Army investigations have concluded that there was no policy of abuse or abusive tactics at U.S.-run prisons, officials said it is clear that operations were tightened after the abuse scandal.
"There have been changes in policy, procedure and oversight, and there is also a sensitivity to the issue," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. "The number of reported cases has been going down."
The number of deaths reported in battlefield detention facilities has also fallen since the Abu Ghraib scandal. From May 2003 to May 2004, 44 death cases were investigated, an average of more than 3.5 per month. Over the last seven months of 2004, 13 cases were investigated, an average of fewer than two per month.
Maj. Gen. Donald J. Ryder, the Army's provost marshal general and head of its criminal investigation command, reported last month that 308 detainee abuse cases have come under investigation, with 201 of them closed. Through Feb. 11, the Army had investigated 68 detainee deaths, 24 of them for possible criminal homicide charges. Thirteen of the 24 cases have been closed, with the results not yet released, and 11 are still being investigated. According to Army records, one of the suspected homicide cases was added after the beginning of December.
Human rights groups have expressed shock at the number of deaths and abuse cases, and the fact that many of the abuses had nothing to do with Abu Ghraib indicates that the abuse went beyond a few military police soldiers who worked there and have been charged with crimes. Army officials said that any detainee death is regrettable, but that more than 70,000 detainees have been processed in Iraq and Afghanistan and less than one-half of 1 percent have allegedly been abused.
Col. Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman, said yesterday that the death investigations have yielded a series of criminal charges but that specific numbers are being compiled by Criminal Investigations Division officials. He said a majority of the death cases resulted from natural or accidental causes or from justifiable homicides, such as when soldiers quell a prison riot or have to defend themselves.
"We're concerned with getting to the truth," Curtin said. "If it happens in our hands, we'll investigate it thoroughly."