Contractor Is Indicted for Prison Abuse in Afghanistan

By DAVID STOUT

The New York Times

Published: June 17, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 17 - A contractor working for the Central Intelligence Agency has been charged in the beating death of a prisoner who was being interrogated in Afghanistan, Attorney General John Ashcroft said today.

The charges, the first to be lodged against a civilian in connection with the prisoner-abuse scandal, were lodged against David A. Passaro, who Mr. Ashcroft said was arrested today in Fayetteville, N.C.

Mr. Passaro is accused in an indictment of beating the prisoner with his fists, kicking him and hitting him with a flashlight during two days of questioning about rocket attacks against Americans. The prisoner, Abdul Wali, had been suspected of taking part in rocket attacks on American forces based in Asadabad in eastern Afghanistan, Mr. Ashcroft said.

Mr. Wali voluntarily surrendered at the Asadabad base on June 18, 2003, and was put in a cell for questioning. After being kicked and beaten repeatedly, the indictment alleges, he died on June 21.

Mr. Passaro, 38, of Lillington, N.C., faces two charges of assault with a deadly weapon and two charges of assault resulting in great bodily harm, Mr. Ashcroft said. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Mr. Passaro declined to name Mr. Passaro's employer.

The charges come amid a growing scandal on the treatment of prisoners held by Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, notorious incidents that the Bush administration insists are isolated and will not go unpunished.

"The American people are by now familiar with the images of prisoner abuse committed in detention facilities overseas," Mr. Ashcroft said. "Today a wholly different and, frankly, more accurate picture of our nation emerges. Today we see a nation dedicated to its ideals of freedom, its respect for human dignity, to its insistence on justice and the rule of law."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking at a Pentagon briefing, said he feared that extensive and distorted news coverage of instances of abuse had done harm. "I've been kind of following the headlines and the bullets in the television - the big, powerful hits on torture and this type of thing that we've seen," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

"And the implication is that the United States government has, in one way or another, ordered, authorized, permitted, tolerated torture," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "Not true."

Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who appeared with Mr. Rumsfeld, said: "It's also important to reaffirm, very important to reaffirm that regardless of how the U.S. military gets custody of an individual that we are expected to treat them humanely. We will treat them humanely."

Mr. Ashcroft said other investigations into possible abuses of prisoners by American civilians are continuing. A number of military investigations into possible abuse by soldiers are also under way.

Mr. Ashcroft said the area around Asadabad is mountainous and is a stronghold of Al Qaeda and Taliban elements. Mr. Wali is believed to have been a former local commander who had fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980's.

"In the reports of abuse of detainees by United States personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two months," Mr. Ashcroft said, "the world witnessed a betrayal of our most basic values by a very small group of individuals. Their actions call us to the defense of our values, our belief in decency and our respect for human life through the enforcement and the rule of law."