Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Reservist: Knee blows that killed 2 detainees were approved

Posted on Sat, Mar. 26, 2005

Reservist: Knee blows that killed 2 detainees were approved

Today's topic: Prison abuse hearings
By Elise Ackerman

FORT BLISS, Texas - An Army reservist accused of killing a detainee in Afghanistan told investigators that the blows that caused the man's death were commonly used to deal with uncooperative prisoners and that his superiors approved of the technique.

Other soldiers testified at a hearing here that they were taught to administer the so-called "compliance blows" in an Army course covering non-lethal tactics and that the blows became an accepted way of dealing with detainees who were considered "combative."

The statement from Pfc. Willie Brand and the testimony from his fellow soldiers provide new evidence that prisoner abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq might have been the result of interrogation and detention practices adopted for the war on terrorism.

U.S. officials have insisted that abuse at U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq was the work of a few rogue soldiers. But human rights groups have charged that President Bush's February 2002 directive saying the Geneva Conventions didn't apply to members of al-Qaida or Taliban fighters led to pervasive mistreatment, first in Afghanistan and later at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in Iraq.

Brand's statements were read aloud at a so-called Article 32 hearing intended to determine whether he should be court-martialed in the December 2002 deaths of two prisoners at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul in Afghanistan. Among the 11 counts facing Brand is one charge of involuntary manslaughter and one charge of maiming in one death. He also faces multiple charges of maltreatment and assault in the deaths of both prisoners.

Army pathologists said the two detainees, identified as Habibullah and Dilawar, died as a result of repeated kneeings to their legs. The men died Dec. 4, 2002, and Dec. 10, 2002, respectively.

Brand, who is charged with involuntary manslaughter in Dila-war's death, said in a sworn statement read at the hearing that sharply kneeing a suspect in the legs was a common technique used to subdue prisoners. He said he had used the technique to gain control of more than 20 detainees during his 10 months of service in Afghan-istan.

Brand, 26, who was assigned to the 377th Military Police Company out of Cincinnati, is the only soldier charged with manslaughter in the deaths. Another soldier from the 377th, Sgt. James Boland, faces assault charges.

But investigators have identified 26 other military police officers and interrogators who they say committed offenses ranging from assault to maltreatment in the case, including a military intelligence officer who later served at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq when abuses took place there.

Army investigators have recommended that the officer, Capt. Carolyn Wood, who was in charge of the Bagram Collection Point when Dilawar and Habibullah died, be charged with maltreatment, conspiracy and making a false official statement in connection with their deaths.

An Army investigation of abuse at Abu Ghraib also criticized Wood, who served with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, for failing "to implement the necessary checks and balances to prevent detainee abuse" there.

Wood declined to comment through a spokesman at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where she's assigned.

Brand's defense attorney, John P. Galligan, asked to question Wood during the hearing, which ended Wednesday. But the Army Reserve officer chairing the hearing, Col. Stephen Pence, the lieutenant governor of Kentucky, said she couldn't be called because she had invoked her right against self-incrimination.

Pence will recommend to the base commander whether Brand should be court-martialed.

According to Army pathologists, Habibullah and Dilawar died after repeated blows to their legs. Both also were shackled to the ceiling for prolonged periods, sometimes with their hands chained at the level of their heads or higher.

Brand said he'd been trained to use "minimum force" when a detainee attacked or assaulted a guard. But when he got to Bagram, he said, "the standard changed and we did things differently."

Brand, who was demoted from specialist to private earlier this year, said an outgoing platoon of soldiers at Bagram trained him to use the knee strikes "as a matter of common practice."

Brand said he initially was uncomfortable with the move, which momentarily crushes a nerve in the leg and incapacitates a person with pain. But he said his commanders "saw this stuff and made no move to correct it, so I took it that the practice was tolerated or allowed."

Brand admitted he struck Habibullah four times in the thigh while the detainee was chained to the ceiling of an isolation cell. He said Habibullah had repeatedly tried to remove a hood covering his head by pinching it between his neck and arms.

The first blow didn't have much of an effect. Brand said he then "stabilized" Habibullah by holding his shirt and hitting him hard enough to lift his feet off the ground.

"It was morally wrong," Brand said. "But it was an SOP."

A few hours later, Habibullah, the brother of a former Taliban commander, lost consciousness. He died shortly after midnight on Dec. 4, 2002.

The next day, a part-time taxi driver named Dilawar was brought to the detention facility. According to investigative documents, Dilawar "was resistant to interrogation" and "eventually became combative."

Handcuffed, Dilawar was placed in an isolation cell and "his hands were stretched over his head to maintain him in a standing position." But even in that contorted posture, Dilawar was able to repeatedly mule-kick the door.

According to Brand's statement, he eventually got fed up with Dilawar's behavior and went into his cell, where he kneed him repeatedly in the legs as he hung from the ceiling.

"I told people I had to switch knees because my leg got tired," Brand said in the affidavit.