Military Prison Abuse

Research by Allison Bloch, Intern 

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Not too long ago, there was no escaping Abu Ghraib. The prisoner abuse scandal dominated the news, the photos looming suddenly from every TV screen, newspaper and magazine.

Since then, the issue has retreated from media’s front burner, displaced by the parade of political conventions, the autumn presidential campaign, even the Scott Peterson trial and steroid-abusing sports stars.

But the larger issue has remained simmering in the background. Occasionally it boils over, if only for a moment, stoked by the latest revelation from Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and from federal and military courts alike.

Abu Ghraib: The trials
Guantanamo & the Geneva Conventions
Prisoner Abuse: Systemic?
The Reaction at Home

Keyword search (guantanamo): Google News, Yahoo News

Keyword search (ghraib): Google News, Yahoo News

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Pre-trial hearings have begun for the court martials of three soldiers at the center of the Abu Ghraib abuse inquiry. The trials will begin in January.

Lawyers for the defendants say their clients were just following orders, and have made a priority of getting testimony from further up the chain of command.

They’ve had mixed results.

–Brigadeer General James Karpinski, the former commander of U.S. military prisons in Iraq, was ordered to testify at the upcoming trial of Sgt. Javal Davis, but only about conditions at Abu Ghraib and “interactions between the guards and military interrogators.”

–Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the former commander of coalition troops in Iraq, will not have to testify at the trial Specialist Charles Graner Jr. In the hopes of proving that the preconditions for abuse came from above, the defendant “wanted Sanchez to acknowledge that he encouraged U.S. soldiers to take whatever legal steps they could to extract useful intelligence from detainees,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

Graner took another legal hit when a judge ruled that comments by President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that the abuse was “abhorrent” and “terrible” would not prejudice the jury in his trial.

Outside the U.S., an American legal advocacy group has filed a lawsuit against Rumsfeld and nine other federal officials for culpability in the Abu Ghraib case.

The suit was filed for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights by a German lawyer on behalf of four Iraqis held at Abu Ghraib.

The federal prosecutor there must now decide whether to take up the case under the German Code of Crimes against International Law.

“Abu Ghraib defendant dealt 2 legal setbacks”
Chicago Tribune, December 7, 2004

“General won’t testify at abuse trial / Abu Ghraib defendant says the commander ordered tactics”
Houston Chronicle, December 6, 2004

“Judge: U.S. commander of Iraqi prisons must testify about Abu Ghraib”
Associated Press, December 4, 2004

“NY group uses German law to spark Abu Ghraib investigation”
The Lawyer, December 6, 2004

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The U.S. has made a point of challenging the Geneva Conventions, which mandate “humane” treatment of prisoners of war, and specifically prohibit torture.

A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. “cannot bypass the Geneva Convention by using military commissions” to try Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.

But the U.S. has also admitted to making a policy of allowing military commissions to use “evidence gained by torture” in determining whether to keep detainees at Guantanamo.

The case of Australian prisoner David Hicks, who was captured with Taliban forces in Afghanistan, highlights the conflict. Major Michael Mori, the U.S. Marine lawyer assigned to defend Hicks, wouldn’t comment on whether Hicks was tortured, but “confirmed he had been physically assaulted in U.S. custody,” according to the Australian Associated Press.

“Hicks may face torture evidence: lawyer”
AAP, December 3, 2004

“Analysis: court must deal with Guantanamo detainees”
World Peace Herald, December 3, 2004

“U.S. says evidence gained by torture can be used to detain combatants”
Associated Press, December 4, 2004

“Reference guide to the Geneva Conventions”

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Beatings of prisoners and other abusive tactics are widely condemned within the military, but seem routine and often overlooked.

New photos were recently unearthed of apparent prisoner abuse by Navy SEALS. FBI warnings about the actions of interrogators went unnoticed. Generals were alerted to the problems well before Abu Ghraib made the news. And practices in Iraq, such as using dogs to intimidate prisoners, apparently first emerged in Afghanistan in U.S.-run prisons.

“FBI letter complains of interrogation techniques at Guantanamo in ’02”
Associated Press, December 7, 2004

“Abuse at U.S. prisons in Iraq mirrored at jails in Afghanistan”
San Francisco Chronicle, December 3, 2004

“U.S. navy investigates new photos showing Iraq prisoner abuse”
Associated Press, December 7, 2004

“U.S. Army generals told of prisoner abuse before Abu Ghraib photos: report”
AFP, December 1, 2004

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Domestic reaction has been almost universally negative. A New York Newsday columnist noted that “that torture and abuse occur in prisons of all kinds, with near-scientific predictability, whenever jailers lack strong leadership and think nobody’s watching.”

He referred to the infamous Stanford prison experiment on 1971, conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, which “randomly assigned 24 college students roles in a fake prison. Half were prisoners, half guards. Although Zimbardo planned a two-week simulation, he hastily called off the experiment after six days.”

According to Zimbardo, the behavior of the “guards” became “ever more pornographic and degrading.” He said the photos from Abu Ghraib were “exact parallel pictures” of what happened at Stanford more than three decades earlier.

The continuing reports of prisoner abuse have provoked calls by the Milwaukee Journal and Boston Globe for a Congressional investigation.

Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson points fingers, and condemns the chain of command: “Soldiers face jail. Commanders get 15-gun salutes. Soldiers are pilloried. White House officials are promoted.”

In Iowa, a columnist condemns a “bizarrely sadistic” prison system, and invokes “the name of Jesus Christ Almighty” in calling for more accountability.

Taking the blame up the chain of command does not, however, exonerate the alleged catspaw.

An editorial for the Alabama-based Decatur Daily says that whether they’re found guilty or innocent, the soldiers pictured in the Abu Ghraib photos prove to Iraqis that “democracy can be as abusive as a dictatorship.”

This revelation, the editorialists assert, may mean that “1,000 American families lost their loved ones for nothing.”

“Roots of abuse”
New York Daily News, December 7, 2004

“Another abuse scandal”
Knight Ridder, December 3, 2004

“America’s Shame”
Boston Globe, December 8, 2004

“Escaping blame for Abu Ghraib”
Boston Globe, December 3, 2004

“Legacy of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo lives on”
Quad-City Times Online, December 4, 2004

“Convicted or not, Abu Ghraib soldier hurt United States”
The Decatur Daily, December 5, 2004

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