Homicide Unpunished

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

ONE OF THE most shocking photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shows a grinning guard giving a thumbs-up sign over the bruised corpse of an Iraqi detainee. Subsequent investigation showed that the deceased prisoner, an Iraqi named Manadel al-Jamadi, died of asphyxiation on Nov. 4, 2003: He was tortured to death by Navy SEAL and CIA interrogators who took turns punching and kicking him, then handcuffed his arms behind his back and shackled them to a window five feet above the floor. Nine SEALs, a sailor and several CIA personnel were implicated in the killing. As it turned out, the Abu Ghraib guard who posed with the body, former Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., was not involved.

Two years after the photo came into the hands of Army investigators, the result of the case is this: Mr. Graner is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in the nonlethal abuse of other detainees at Abu Ghraib -- and no one involved in killing Mr. Jamadi has suffered serious penalty. Nine members of the Navy team were given "nonjudicial punishment" by their commanding officer; the 10th, a lieutenant, was acquitted on charges of assault and dereliction of duty. None of the CIA personnel has been prosecuted. The lead interrogator, Mark Swanner, reportedly continues to work for the agency.

The de facto principles governing the punishment of U.S. personnel guilty of prisoner abuse since 2002 now are clear: Torturing a foreign prisoner to death is excusable. Authoring and implementing policies of torture may lead to promotion. But being pictured in an Abu Ghraib photograph that leaks to the press is grounds for a heavy prison sentence. In addition to Mr. Graner, seven lowly guards appearing in photos, none of whom were involved in fatalities, have been sentenced to prison. But according to a well-documented new report by Human Rights First, only 12 of 98 deaths of detainees in U.S. custody have resulted in punishment of any kind for any U.S. official. In eight cases in which prisoners have been tortured to death, the steepest sentence meted out has been five months in jail.

The report documents many of these cases in devastating detail. There is, for example, the case of former Iraqi Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who in November 2003 was beaten for days by Army and CIA interrogators, then stuffed into a sleeping bag, wrapped with electrical cord and smothered. The case was classified as a murder, but only one person was court-martialed, a low-level warrant officer. After arguing, plausibly, that his actions were approved by more senior officers under a policy issued by the then-commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, his punishment was to be restricted for 60 days to his home, workplace and church.

The Mowhoush case was heavily publicized, which may explain why some action was taken. The Army itself has labeled 34 prisoner deaths as homicides, but in more than half of those no charges were brought. In close to half of the 98 cases it surveyed, Human Rights First reported, the cause of death remains officially undetermined or unannounced. "In dozens of cases," the report says, "grossly inadequate reporting, investigation and follow-through have left no one at all responsible for homicides and other unexplained deaths." Commanders, starting with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and extending through the ranks, have repeatedly declined to hold Americans accountable for documented war crimes.

Mr. Rumsfeld and the military command have grown so confident of their impunity that they don't even try very hard to defend themselves. "Some 250 people have been punished in one way or another," Mr. Rumsfeld replied last month when asked about abuse cases. Spokesmen offered a similar response last week to the Human Rights First report. Sadly, it has been left to retired officers, such as Brig. Gen. David R. Irvine, to speak honestly about this shameful record. The "torture and death" catalogued by Human Rights First, he wrote in a response to the report, "are the consequence of a shocking breakdown of command discipline on the part of the Army's Officer Corps. . . . What is unquestionably broken is the fundamental principle of command accountability, and that starts at the very top."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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