Marines operating in Iraq over the past two years committed a variety of abuses against Iraqi prisoners, including burning a detainee's hands by igniting alcohol-based cleanser in August 2003, according to internal Defense Department documents released yesterday.
Several other incidents, most of them previously undisclosed, are described in investigative reports and legal summaries. In Karbala in May 2003, one Marine held a 9mm pistol to the back of a bound detainee's head while another took a photograph. Two months later, in Diwaniyah, four Marines ordered teenage Iraqi looters to kneel alongside holes and then fired a pistol "to conduct a mock execution."
In April of this year, shortly before the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal shook the U.S. military, three Marines in Mahmudiya shocked a detainee with an electric transformer, forcing him to "dance" as the electricity hit him, according to a witness, one document states. The Washington Post reported that incident in June, after two of the Marines pleaded guilty in the case.
This new catalogue of abuses involves members of a variety of units, and is distinct from earlier disclosures of the torture of prisoners by Army reservists at Abu Ghraib and the maltreatment of detainees in Afghanistan by Army soldiers and Special Operations troops.
Overall, according to a summary prepared for the Pentagon's inspector general but obtained and released by the American Civil Liberties Union, there were 10 substantiated incidents of Marines abusing prisoners. Those involved 24 members of the Corps, and resulted in 11 court-martial convictions and three lesser punishments. Charges were dismissed against six other Marines, and four cases are pending, the summary said. All the abuse involved members of various units within the 1st Marine Division.
The August 2003 burning incident, which occurred at Camp Dogwood, near Iskandariyah, blistered the Iraqi detainee's hands and resulted in a special court-martial in which a Marine was found guilty of assault, confined for 90 days and demoted. Other incidents resulted in similar punishments.
The most severe sentences were handed down in the case of the detainee being shocked, the summary said, with two Marines court-martialed at Camp Fallujah in May. One received a one-year confinement, and the other eight months. Several other prosecutions are pending in that case, the document noted.
The internal summary also stated that there were 11 other incidents in which allegations of abuse were not substantiated and five cases in which investigations were pending.
The dozens of documents were obtained by the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act. The organization recently distributed a series of documents it received from various parts of the military. "Abuse of detainees was not aberrational," ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer said in a statement accompanying the release. "The Defense Department adopted extreme interrogation techniques as a matter of policy."
Supporting that assertion, the ACLU said, is a statement taken in October by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in which a Navy corpsman who had been attached to the Marines in Iraq stated that it was routine to take a prisoner to an empty swimming pool, place cuffs on his hands and legs, put a burlap bag over his head, and then "the EPW [enemy prisoner of war] would remain in the kneeling position for no longer than 24 hours while the EPW was awaiting interrogation."
A Marine spokesman said the documents underscore not only that abuse occurred but that allegations involving mistreatment are taken seriously. "Each of these acts referred to by the ACLU resulted in courts-martial convictions," Maj. Nat Fahy said. "This clearly demonstrates our commitment to thoroughly investigate all allegations of detainee abuse and hold those people accountable. Any behavior that does not constitute humane treatment of detainees is simply not tolerated."
Fahy said he was unaware of the Marines' having issued statements disclosing any of the incidents, but said, "We made the information available if people asked for it."
Lawrence T. Di Rita, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, said that there have been more than a dozen major investigations of the handling of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that probes of individual cases have resulted in about three dozen courts-martial and an equal number of lesser "nonjudicial punishments."
"We've held a number of individuals accountable," he said at a Pentagon briefing. "We will continue to hold people accountable. And we will continue to pump out documents."
John Miller, who commanded a Marine rifle company during the Vietnam War, said he thought the incidents of abuse were an aberration for Marines. "The Marines are very well-schooled in the law of war," he said. But, he added that "there are guys who were bums when they came in, and they'll be bums when they get out."