Rights Group Reports Deaths of Men Held by U.S. in Afghanistan

By CARLOTTA GALL

New York Times

December 14, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec.13 - Human Rights Watch said Monday that new cases of deaths of men in American custody in Afghanistan had come to light. It accused the Defense Department of operating outside the law there and failing to investigate abuses, including killings.

In an open letter to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Human Rights Watch, which is based in New York, described the deaths of three detainees, including a member of the newly established Afghan Army. Six men are now known to have died in American custody here, and only two people have been charged in the deaths, the organization said.

The detention system operated by American forces in Afghanistan continues to operate outside the rule of law, the letter said. The United States continues to hold Afghan detainees in legal limbo and in many cases incommunicado, in violation of American obligations under the international laws of armed conflict and applicable Afghan law, it said. Accusations of abuse and arbitrary detention continue to surface at American bases around Afghanistan, it added.

Failure to investigate and prosecute abuses created a culture of impunity among some interrogators, and allowed abuse to spread, in particular to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the organization said in a statement issued with the letter.

"It's time for the United States to come clean about crimes committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan," said Brad Adams, Asia division director for Human Rights Watch.

The three deaths include one that occurred in 2002 but was disclosed only last week after internal Department of Defense documents were released to the American Civil Liberties Union in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. According to the documents, an Afghan man was killed in or before September 2002 by four American soldiers - a captain and three sergeants - after they detained him on suspicion of following their movements in Afghanistan. The case was investigated in 2002, but no one was prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said.

The other two cases emerged in news media reports, Human Rights Watch said. It said Jamal Naseer, of the American-backed official Afghan Army, was killed in March 2003 after he and seven other soldiers were mistakenly arrested by American forces and taken to a base in Gardez. They were badly beaten, Human Rights Watch said, citing reports by the United Nations office in Gardez, the office of the attorney general of the Afghan Army, and the nongovernmental Crimes of War project.

The Army Criminal Investigative Command opened an inquiry into the case in May 2004 but has not charged anyone, Human Rights Watch said. The latest case, Human Rights Watch said, is of Sher Mohammad Khan, who was arrested on Sept. 24, 2004, in a raid on his family's home near Khost in eastern Afghanistan and died the next day at an American base. His brother was fatally shot by American forces in the raid, the group said. Relatives reported bruises on Sher Mohammad Khan's body when they retrieved it, Human Rights Watch said, calling for an investigation of the death.

Human Rights Watch had already documented the deaths of three other detainees. Two Afghan men died in detention at the United States air base at Bagram in December 2002, and American pathologists ruled at the time that their deaths were homicides. A third man, Abdul Wali, died in June 2003 in a forward operating base in Kunar Province. Only two people have been charged in the deaths, and the inquiries have stalled, the rights group said.

A Pentagon spokesman in Washington, Lt. Col. Joe Yoswa, declined to comment on the letter to Mr. Rumsfeld, but said that as a matter of practice, "we go out and investigate the deaths of all detainees."

Chris Grey, of the Army Criminal Investigation Command, said investigators had looked into the deaths of eight detainees in American military custody, Reuters reported.

Other reports of deaths of detainees in Afghanistan were not mentioned by Human Rights Watch. In a case documented by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, an Afghan named Abdul Wahed died in the American special forces bases at Gereshk in November 2003. He was tortured by the Afghan commander guarding the base and then given to American forces when close to death, the United States military has acknowledged. No charges have been brought, and the Afghan commander continues to work with the special forces at the base, Human Rights Watch said.