When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan by Andy Worthington

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by Andy Worthington
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
1 July 2009

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few days about the long-awaited (and twice-delayed) release of the 2004 CIA Inspector General’s Report, which, as Glenn Greenwald explained on Tuesday, “aggressively question[s] both the efficacy and legality” of the Bush administration’s interrogation tactics in the “War on Terror.” As Greenwald also explained,

In anticipation of the release of that report, there is an important effort underway — as part of the ACLU Accountability Project — to correct a critically important deficiency in the public debate over torture and accountability. So often, the premise of media discussions of torture is that “torture” is something that was confined to a single tactic (waterboarding) and used only on three “high-value” detainees accused of being high-level al-Qaeda operatives. The reality is completely different.

The interrogation and detention regime implemented by the US resulted in the deaths of over 100 detainees in US custody — at least [see “Command’s Responsibility,” a Human Rights First report from 2006, PDF]. While some of those deaths were the result of “rogue” interrogators and agents, many were caused by the methods authorized at the highest levels of the Bush White House, including extreme stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation and others. Aside from the fact that they cause immense pain, that’s one reason we’ve always considered those tactics to be “torture” when used by others — because they inflict serious harm, and can even kill people. Those arguing against investigations and prosecutions — that we “Look to the Future, not the Past” — are thus literally advocating that numerous people get away with murder.

In the run-up to the anticipated publication of the report, as part of what blogger and psychologist Jeff Kaye described as “a mini-blog storm on behalf of the ACLU’s Accountability Project,” several bloggers — including drational at Daily Kos, and Empty Wheel, bmaz and Jeff at Firedoglake, wrote articles examining aspects of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies — and, in particular, the question of murders in US custody.

The logo of the ACLU's "Accountability for Torture" project

On Friday, I also wrote an article about torture for the ACLU’s Accountability Project, explaining how the hunger strikers at Guantánamo are part of the same torture machine — and, moreover, one that, unnervingly, is still operating today — but as a contribution to the specific topic of demonstrating to the US public, and the wider world, that torture techniques implemented by the Bush administration led to murders in US custody, I’m presenting below some relevant sections from my book The Guantánamo Files, from testimony provided by former prisoner Omar Deghayes, and from a recent report by investigator John Sifton, relating to ten murders in US prisons in Afghanistan, three of which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been investigated at all.

Following the outline proposed by Glenn Greenwald above, some of these murders may have involved a few “rogue” actions, but in general it’s clear that they followed methods authorized at the highest levels of the Bush White House — or variations introduced in a context where limits on abusive behavior had been reduced or eliminated, ostensibly to facilitate interrogation.

The prelude to two notorious murders — and, very possibly, three others — in the US prison at Bagram airbase began in the summer of 2002, when 14 soldiers from the 525th Military Intelligence Brigade at Fort Bragg arrived at the prison, led by Lt. Carolyn Wood, and were soon joined by six Arabic-speaking reservists from the Utah National Guard. Lt. Wood took over interrogations from a team led by an interrogator who later wrote a book about his experiences, The Interrogators, using the pseudonym Chris Mackey. This is how I described what happened next in The Guantánamo Files:

Murders in Bagram (from Chapter 14 of The Guantánamo Files)

The only known photo of the cells in the US prison at Bagram airbase

Typically, the new recruits were unprepared for what awaited them. Some were counter-intelligence specialists with no background in interrogation, and only two had interrogated real prisoners before. They were also given few guidelines about how to behave. Speaking to the army’s criminal investigation unit in 2004, one of the reservists said that President Bush’s announcement, in February 2002, that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda and that Taliban fighters did not have rights as prisoners of war, led the interrogators to believe that they “could deviate slightly from the rules.” “There was the Geneva Conventions for enemy prisoners of war, but nothing for terrorists,” he added, explaining that senior intelligence officers told them that the prisoners “were to be considered terrorists until proved otherwise.”

Given carte blanche to treat the prisoners as they saw fit, and under persistent pressure to come up with intelligence, Wood’s team adopted stress positions as a standard procedure, and pushed the policy of sleep deprivation further than Mackey had. Whereas “monstering” [a policy introduced by Mackey, which involved interrogation sessions that lasted as long as the interrogator could stay awake] had never exceeded 24 hours, one former interrogator said that they “decided on 32 to 36 hours as the optimal time to keep prisoners awake and eliminated the practice of staying up themselves.”

It also became standard policy that new prisoners were hooded, shackled and kept in isolation for the first 24 hours of their imprisonment, and sometimes for the first three days. Writing about the army’s report [and the murders at Bagram, in an impressive article for the New York Times in May 2005], the journalist Tim Golden noted that prisoners who were considered important or uncooperative were handcuffed and chained to the ceilings and doors of their cells, sometimes for several days. Although the Red Cross complained, the army report noted that senior officers toured the facility and saw it in operation, but never prohibited its use.

In addition, Bagram became a place of even greater random brutality. Golden described how violence was sometimes used to extract information, or as punishment for rule-breaking, but that on other occasions “the torment seems to have been driven by little more than boredom or cruelty, or both.” In statements to army investigators, soldiers mentioned a prisoner who was “forced to roll back and forth on the floor of a cell, kissing the boots of his two interrogators as he went,” and another who was “made to pick plastic bottle caps out of a drum mixed with excrement and water as part of a strategy to soften him up for questioning.”


As Carolyn Wood and her team settled in at Bagram, they were joined, in late August, by a new military police unit — mostly reservists — who had received very little training, and who brought with them a new technique, the common peroneal strike, described by Tim Golden as “a potentially disabling blow to the side of the leg, just above the knee,” which soon became widely applied. In the army report cited [above], the MPs claimed they were never told that it was not an accepted army technique, and most said they never heard one of their trainers in the US — a former police officer — telling a soldier “he would never use such strikes because they would ‘tear up’ a prisoner’s legs.”

Mullah Habibullah

In early December, the unfettered violence finally spilled over into homicide. The first victim was Mullah Habibullah, who was apparently the brother of a Taliban commander from Uruzgan. Stout and well-presented, he was described as “very confident” by the major in charge of the MPs. After kneeing a soldier in the groin during his anal probe [which all prisoners received on arrival], three guards took him to an isolation cell and shackled his wrists to the wire ceiling, and on the following two days, when he was still “uncooperative,” he was given several peroneal strikes by one of the soldiers, whose lawyer later noted that his client was “acting consistently with the standard operating procedure that was in place at the Bagram facility.”

By the fourth day, he was coughing and complaining of chest pains, and his interrogator allowed him to sit on the floor because he was unable to bend his knees to sit down. Despite this, the violence increased the next day, when two MPs gave him nine peroneal strikes while he was handcuffed to the ceiling in one of the isolation cells. When three soldiers came to his cell later in the day and pulled off his hood, he was already dead. A medic told the military investigators, “It looked like he had been dead for a while, and it looked like nobody cared.”

Dilawar, photographed on his arrival at Bagram

The second victim was a taxi driver named Dilawar, who was brought in the day after the death of Mullah Habibullah. According to his elder brother, he was “a shy man, a very simple man,” who lived a quiet life with his wife, his young daughter and the rest of his family. On the day of his capture, he picked up three passengers and was passing Camp Salerno, a US base, when he was stopped at a checkpoint by soldiers serving under Jan Baz Khan, the nephew of Pacha Khan Zadran, who were looking for the men who had launched a rocket attack on the base earlier that day. Finding a broken walkie-talkie on one of the passengers and an electric stabilizer for a generator in the boot of the car, they delivered the four men to the Americans at Bagram as suspects.

They were among the last men to be implicated by Jan Baz Khan, and Dilawar’s passengers — Parkhudin, a 25-year old farmer, Abdul Rahim, a 27-year old baker, and Zakkim Shah, a 19-year old farmer — were certainly the last three to be sent to Guantánamo on Khan’s advice, because the Americans finally realized that their supposed ally was actually using them for his own ends, and imprisoned him in Bagram in February 2004. [Note: The baleful influence of Pacha Khan Zadran and Jan Baz Khan is mentioned elsewhere in The Guantánamo Files, as several other men ended up in Guantánamo based on false allegations provided by them].

All this, however, came too late for Dilawar. After the first night, when the four men were handcuffed to a fence, to prevent them sleeping, their interrogations began. Although Dilawar was only a small, frail man, he was regarded as non-compliant, when he apparently spat in the face of a soldier, who gave him a couple of peroneal strikes, which made him cry out, “Allah!” The soldier explained, “Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny. It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out ‘Allah.’ It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.”

A sketch by Thomas V. Curtis, a Reserve MP sergeant, showing how Dilawar was chained to the ceiling of his cell in Bagram

Over the next two days, Dilawar was subjected to brutal interrogations, in which few words were actually spoken. Unable to assume a stress position in the first session, because his legs were so damaged, he was repeatedly thrown against the wall, and, according to the interpreter, a violent female interrogator stamped on his bare foot with her boot, and kicked him in the groin. The following day, after being chained to the ceiling once more, he was unable to kneel and kept falling asleep. After asking for a drink and being sprayed with water until he gagged, he was returned to his cell and chained up once more, and by the following morning he was dead.

How long it would have taken the US military to investigate the murders, if left to their own devices, is unknown. Instead, they issued a press release, announcing that a prisoner had died of a heart attack, and then refused to release any further information. Investigating further, the journalist Carlotta Gall (in another impressive story for the New York Times in March 2003) traced Dilawar’s family and was shown his death certificate, on which an army pathologist stated unequivocally that, although he had coronary artery disease, his heart failed because of “blunt force injuries to the lower extremities.” The extent of his injuries was later summed up by two coroners: one said that his legs had “basically been pulpified,” and the other said, “I’ve seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus.”

Gall’s article provoked an investigation into the murders, which, in 2005 and 2006, led to various minor punishments and reprimands for the soldiers involved, although at no point, as with the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, was anyone encouraged to look higher up the chain of command to explain why it was that such murderous treatment had become “standard operating procedure.”

Dilawar before his capture

Others who were aware of the murders were other prisoners who had been in Bagram at the time. Dilawar’s passengers, who were released from Guantánamo in March 2004, explained that his family asked them to describe what had happened, but “they could not bring themselves to recount the details,” and Parkhudin said, “I told them he had a bed. I said the Americans were very nice because he had a heart problem.”

[Former British prisoner] Moazzam Begg also reported that he witnessed a death at the end of 2002, but what is even more disturbing is that Begg, Richard Belmar and Jamal Kiyemba [two other former British prisoners] reported another death in July that has never been investigated. All three said that a young Afghan was killed after he tried to escape. Belmar said, “He was fine when they brought him in. They had immobilized him, and the next thing they were carrying him out on a stretcher,” and Kiyemba, who was clearly not talking about either Habibullah or Dilawar, because he was transferred to Guantánamo in October 2002, explained that the murder was used as part of the pressure that was exerted on him to make a false confession: “The only way out, I was told, was to confess. I heard and saw other torture — banging, screaming, cries, barking dogs and a dead guy who had tried to escape. One of the MPs said, ‘Who’s next?’ So I confessed to be left alone.”

The most complete story of this unacknowledged murder was told by Moazzam Begg, who spent ten months at Bagram, where, in addition to the usual abuse, he was threatened with being sent to Egypt for torture, enticed to become a CIA agent, and, at a particularly low point, convinced that a woman who was screaming in a cell next to him was his wife. He reported [in his book, Enemy Combatant] that a guard he knew from Kandahar told him about the murder, admitting that he “started hitting the detainee so hard that he felt he had fractured something,” and that another guard used “Thai-style elbow- and knee-techniques.” He added, “I didn’t know whether they knew that had killed him,” and pointed out that another guard confirmed the murder, but later tried to deny it, saying, “Oh no, he didn’t really die, the reason they covered his face was just to scare people.”

Two more murders in Bagram (from testimony by Omar Deghayes)

In addition, Omar Deghayes, a British resident who was also held at Bagram in this period (and who was released from Guantánamo in December 2007), explained, in a statement made public in August 2007, that he had witnessed two other murders in Bagram. Deghayes said that he “witnessed a prisoner shot dead after he had gone to the aid of an inmate who was being beaten and kicked by the guards” (“The American,” he explained, “said he tried to take the gun”), and that he was also nearby when another prisoner was beaten to death: “One by the name of Abdaulmalik, Moroccan and Italian, was beaten until I heard no sound of him after the screaming. There was afterwards panic in prison and the guards running about in fear saying to each other the Arab has died. I have not seen this young man again.”

As I explained in an article at the time, these two murders were clearly not the same as that reported by Moazzam Begg, Richard Belmar and Jamal Kiyemba, and it appears, therefore, that there may have been five murders at Bagram in 2002.

A murder in the “Salt Pit” (from Chapter 16 of The Guantánamo Files)

The existence of the “Salt Pit,” [a secret CIA prison] housed in an abandoned brick factory north of the capital, remained a closely guarded secret until 2005, when two stories emerged to blow its cover. The first of these was a previously unreported murder, which was exposed by Dana Priest in the Washington Post in March 2005. Priest reported that in November 2002, a recently-promoted CIA officer, who had been put in charge of the facility, in the absence of any senior personnel who were willing to take the job, “ordered guards to strip naked an uncooperative young Afghan detainee, chain him to the concrete floor and leave him there overnight without blankets.” Following their orders, the guards then dragged him around the floor before putting him in his cell, where he died of hypothermia during the night.

According to a senior US official, he then “disappeared from the face of the earth”: he was hastily buried in an unmarked grave, his family was never notified of his death, and the CIA officer in charge of the prison was promoted. The US authorities, meanwhile, showed no willingness to investigate the case further. “He was probably associated with people who were associated with al-Qaeda,” one official said, even though nothing was known about him at the time of his death, apart from the fact that he was captured in Pakistan with some other Afghans.

More murders in US custody (from Chapter 17 of The Guantánamo Files)

The murders at Bagram and the “Salt Pit” in 2002 heralded an increasingly barbarous US regime in Afghanistan. Although Hamid Karzai was sworn in as [interim] President after a loya jirga (grand council) in Kabul in June 2002, which was attended by 2,000 delegates from across Afghanistan, the US military — and, in particular, the Special Forces soldiers operating out of several forward operating bases around the country — behaved like a rogue army.

In March 2003, journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark traveled to Gardez to meet Dr. Rafiullah Bidar, the regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, recently established — with funding from the US Congress – “to investigate abuses committed by local warlords and to ensure that women’s and children’s rights were protected.” Ironically, Bidar told the reporters [for another impressive article, this one in the Guardian] that what his job actually entailed was registering complaints against the US military. “Many thousands of people have been rounded up and detained by them,” he said. “Those who have been freed say that they were held alongside foreign detainees who’ve been brought to this country to be processed. No one is charged. No one is identified. No international monitors are allowed into the US jails. People who have been arrested say they’ve been brutalized — the tactics used are beyond belief.”

Speaking anonymously, a government minister also complained, “Washington holds Afghanistan up to the world as a nascent democracy and yet the US military has deliberately kept us down, using our country to host a prison system that seems to be administered arbitrarily, indiscriminately and without accountability.”

Jamal Naseer

Throughout 2003, at least three more prisoners were murdered by Americans in three different forward operating bases that were part of this arbitrary, indiscriminate and unaccountable prison system. In Gardez, in March 2003, Jamal Naseer, an 18-year old Afghan army recruit, was captured with seven other Afghan soldiers. After being treated “like animals” for 17 days, according to some of the other men, who said that they were hung upside down and struck repeatedly with sticks, rubber hoses and cables, immersed in cold water, made to lie in the snow, and subjected to electric shocks, Naseer’s body, covered in bruises, was turned over to the local police with no documentation of his death and no autopsy results.

Three months later, in Asadabad, 28-year old Abdul Wali, who handed himself in voluntarily in connection with a rocket attack in which he was not involved, was beaten to death by David Passaro, a civilian contractor working with the CIA, who assaulted him “using his hands and feet, and a large flashlight” over a two-day period, and in November, at a base in Gereshk, another Afghan, Abdul Wahid, died from “multiple blunt force injuries” (autopsy report, PDF), 48 hours after he was handed over by Afghan forces.

Abdul Wali, photographed after his death

As with the murders in 2002, the authorities were unwilling to pursue investigations. An inquest into Naseer’s death did not begin until September 2004, after the story surfaced in the media, and in January 2007 the only outcome was that two soldiers received an “administrative remand” for failing to report the murder. In Abdul Wahid’s case, the authorities absolved themselves of blame by claiming that his injuries were sustained in Afghan custody, and in Abdul Wali’s case, David Passaro was charged with assault [not murder] in June 2004, and was sentenced to eight years in prison in February 2007. This was little comfort to Wali’s family, however, and Said Akbar, the governor of Kunar province, noted that his murder became a tool for terrorist recruiting and “created a huge setback for Afghanistan’s national reconciliation efforts.”

A tenth murder, reported by John Sifton

Two months ago, in an article for the Daily Beast, human rights researcher John Sifton provided information about a tenth prisoner murdered in US custody in Afghanistan, Mohammad Sayari, an Afghan who died in August 2002. As Sifton explained, “I first learned about the Sayari case in 2005, reading through a Department of Defense document obtained via a Freedom of Information Act case by the American Civil Liberties Union. The document contained a short description of the incident: A captain and three sergeants ‘murdered Mr. [Sayari] after detaining him for following their movements in Afghanistan.’ The section of the document detailing the result of the investigation was redacted.”

Last year, in conjunction with various human rights groups, Sifton sought an explanation for Sayari’s death from the US military. “The Army,” he wrote, “revealed that commanders had declined to prosecute any of the four men implicated in the case, although one of the four soldiers received an ‘administrative reprimand.’” This was in spite of the fact that, in 2006, additional documents obtained by the ACLU had “disclosed that the Army investigation had found probable cause to recommend charges of murder and conspiracy against the four Special Forces soldiers. According the investigation, the four soldiers had captured the detainee, a civilian non-combatant, and shot him, presumably after interrogating him.” Sifton added that military investigators “also recommended dereliction-of-duty charges against three of the men and a charge of obstruction of justice against the highest-ranking, a captain, who admitted to destroying evidence of the crime, but that, “[i]nexplicably, without a court martial, the case was closed,” and all that happened was that the captain “received a letter of reprimand for ‘destroying evidence.’”


In conclusion, I can only hope that the stories above contribute to correcting what Glenn Greenwald described as “a critically important deficiency in the public debate over torture and accountability” — and bear in mind that I was dealing only with ten murders in Afghanistan, and not the 90-plus murders in US custody in Iraq. If we are indeed to “Look to the Future, not the Past,” and to “regain America’s moral stature in the world,” as President Obama hopes, this can only be achieved by addressing the crimes of the past, moving beyond the “few bad apples” scenario used by the Bush administration to deflect attention from its own culpability, and demanding accountability from the senior officials responsible for turning America into a nation that openly practiced torture.

As retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey explained to MSNBC in April, on the day that President Obama visited CIA headquarters in April to praise the agency for upholding US values and ideals, “We should never, as a policy, maltreat people under our control, detainees. We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the CIA.”

Explaining its call for accountability, the ACLU declares on its “Accountability for Torture” homepage, “We will press Congress to appoint a select committee that can investigate the roots of the torture program and recommend legislative changes to ensure that the abuses of the last eight years are not repeated. And we will advocate for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to examine issues of criminal responsibility. We can’t sweep the abuses of the last eight years under the rug. Accountability for torture is a legal, political, and moral imperative.”

It is indeed. And without it, the message that President Obama sends to the world is not that he has “regain[ed] America’s moral stature in the world,” but that senior officials can torture with impunity, so long as they leave office after committing their crimes.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.


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