Report Cited Scant Evidence, Long Detention for Iraqis

Published: May 30, 2004

WASHINGTON, May 29 - Hundreds of Iraqi prisoners were held in Abu Ghraib prison for prolonged periods despite a lack of evidence that they posed a security threat to American forces, according to an Army report completed last fall.

The unpublished report, by Maj. Gen. Donald J. Ryder, reflects what other senior Army officers have described as a deep concern among some American officers and officials in Iraq over the refusal of top American commanders in Baghdad to authorize the release of so-called security prisoners. Some of those prisoners were held for interrogation at Abu Ghraib in the cellblock that became the site of the worst abuses at the prison.

General Ryder, the Army's provost marshal, reported that some Iraqis had been held for several months for nothing more than expressing "displeasure or ill will" toward the American occupying forces. The Nov. 5 report said the process for deciding which arrested Iraqis posed security risks justifying imprisonment, and for deciding when to release them, violated the Pentagon's own policies. It also said the conditions in which they were held sometimes violated the Geneva Conventions.

General Ryder's report, obtained by The New York Times, was based on a review of prisons in Iraq last summer and fall, and it made no mention of abuses at Abu Ghraib. But it warned that the continuing influx of prisoners being arrested as the American-led occupation forces fought a persistent insurrection would strain the system set up to review each case every six months, as required by international law.

"A more disciplined system would reduce the security internee population and inherent challenge of holding Iraqis that feel they have been unjustly detained," he wrote.

Since the scope of abuses at Abu Ghraib first began to come to light late last month, the military has begun to discharge prisoners from the facility at a rapidly accelerated rate. On Friday alone, 624 Iraqi prisoners were freed from the prison, in the fourth such release in May.

But the military has offered little public explanation of the process of deciding who should be released and who should remain in prison. In Baghdad this week, the top American military spokesman in Iraq offered a vigorous defense of the procedures used by American commanders for determining which Iraqi prisoners should be freed.

"We don't put them in Abu Ghraib to detain them for a period of time or to detain them until proven innocent," said the spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. "They are deemed to be a security threat by a judge through multiple sources of evidence. It's that simple.

"If they were innocent, they wouldn't be at Abu Ghraib," he said.

In interviews, senior Army officers have described senior officers on the staff of Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top American commander in Iraq, as having been the major obstacle to releasing prisoners from Abu Ghraib. The officers have said in particular that Brig. Gen. Barbara Fast, the top Army intelligence officer in Iraq, often ruled last fall against the release of prisoners, even against the recommendation of a military police commander and military intelligence officers at the prison.

The report by General Ryder recommended that the final judgments on the release of security prisoners be elevated from the three-person review board in Iraq to the level of an assistant secretary of defense. But American commanders in Baghdad have not announced such a change in procedures.

"The percentage of persons that were released because they've served their time - that percentage is zero," said General Kimmitt when he was asked this week about the reasons for the releases. "The number that were released because they were innocent? That number, too, is zero. Persons are held at Abu Ghraib because they are determined to be security threats, imminent security threats here in country."

Tensions between American officials at the prison, including Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, and senior American officers in Baghdad, including General Fast, over the release of prisoners from Abu Ghraib last fall were first described publicly in the investigative report into the abuses by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, which emerged last month.