The U.S. military released new details yesterday about five confirmed cases of U.S. personnel mishandling the Koran at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, acknowledging that soldiers and interrogators kicked the Muslim holy book, got copies wet, stood on a Koran during an interrogation and inadvertently sprayed urine on another copy.
Brig. Gen. Jay W. Hood, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, who completed the three-week inquiry this week into alleged mishandling of the Koran, confirmed five cases of intentional or unintentional mishandling of the holy book, which appear to be unrelated, from among 19 alleged incidents since the detention facility opened in January 2002. His investigation also found 15 incidents of detainees desecrating Korans.
In a news release from the U.S. Southern Command late yesterday, Hood expanded on statements he made at a Pentagon news briefing last week, when he characterized the incidents as rare, isolated and largely inadvertent. Officials said they have issued more than 1,600 Korans at the facility.
"Mishandling a Koran at Guantanamo Bay is a rare occurrence," Hood said in the statement. "Mishandling of a Koran here is never condoned. When one considers the many thousands of times detainees have been moved and cells have been searched since detention operations first began here in January 2002, I think one can only conclude that respect for detainee religious beliefs was embedded in the culture of [the task force] from the start."
In a statement, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that "our men and women in the military adhere to the highest standards, including when it comes to respecting and protecting religious freedom."
Detainees, human rights groups and some military personnel have complained about desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay. Tom Wilner, an attorney for 11 Kuwaiti nationals being held at the prison, said yesterday that the number and persistence of reports of Koran abuse from detainees indicate a much broader problem than indicated by the Hood inquiry.
"It's sort of amazing today that we define truth as only when the government confirms something happened," Wilner said. "I think there is no question that, especially in the early days of Guantanamo, there was a persistent pattern of physical abuse and religious discrimination, including desecration of the Koran. . . . But it hasn't been fully looked at."
Investigators were specifically looking into allegations that U.S. personnel had flushed a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay. Newsweek reported in early May that such an allegation had been confirmed, setting off riots in Muslim nations that left 16 people dead, but then retracted the story. Hood's inquiry determined that no such incident took place.
The probe did find, however, that rumors of such an event swirled around the facility in the summer of 2002 after a detainee dropped his Koran on the floor and other detainees blamed the mishandling on U.S. guards. The story, according to a U.S. Southern Command news release, changed as detainees passed it along, escalating to rumors that U.S. troops ripped pages out of the book and then flushed it.
But the investigation's results also are contrary to a recent claim by a top Pentagon spokesman that there were no credible accounts of Korans being mishandled -- though he added that officials would nevertheless conduct an investigation.
The first case, in February 2002, arose when a detainee complained that guards at Camp X-Ray kicked the Koran of a detainee in a neighboring cell. Though interrogators and guards noted the incident at the time, there was no further investigation.
In another case, in August 2003, two detainees complained to their guards that a number of Korans were wet "because the night shift guards had thrown water balloons on the block." No further details of the incident were provided, but Hood's team determined the complaints to be credible and found "no evidence that the incident, although clearly inappropriate, caused any type of disturbance on the block."
Other confirmed reports included a two-word obscenity being written in the inside cover of a Koran, though investigators were unable to determine who wrote the phrase and concluded it was possible that the complaining detainee -- who was conversant in English -- may have defaced his own book. Another report, in July 2003, detailed an incident in which a contract interrogator stood on a detainee's Koran during an interrogation. The interrogator was fired for a "pattern of unacceptable behavior, an inability to follow direct guidance and poor leadership," according to the news release yesterday.
The most recent, and perhaps strangest, case of mishandling was documented on March 25, 2005, when a detainee complained to the guards that urine came through an air vent in his cell and "splashed on him and his Koran while he laid near the air vent." According to Hood's investigation, the guard who was responsible reported himself to his superiors and was reassigned to gate duty. The detainee was given a new uniform and Koran.
"The guard had left his observation area post and went outside to urinate," according to a summary of the incident. "He urinated near an air vent and the wind blew his urine through the vent into the block."
Hood's investigation also turned up 15 incidents in which detainees mishandled Korans between Nov. 19, 2002, and Feb. 18, 2005. Many of the cases involved detainees ripping up their own Korans, throwing the Koran or its pages out of their cells, or trying to deface a Koran belonging to another detainee. One detainee used his Koran as a pillow, one used pages from it to cover the air vent in his cell, and another ripped up his Koran and handed it to a guard, stating that he had "given up on being a Muslim."
Three of the detainee cases involved spitting or throwing urine on Korans, and in one case, on Jan. 19, 2005, a detainee allegedly "tore up his Koran and tried to flush it down the toilet," according to the report. Four days later, a detainee ripped pages from the book and tried to flush them down the toilet as a protest, because he wanted to be moved to another part of the camp.
Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher in Waco, Tex., contributed to this report.