THREATS AND RESPONSES: PRISONERS; U.S. MILITARY INVESTIGATING DEATH OF AFGHAN IN CUSTODY
by Carlotta Gall
The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, edited by Karen J.
Greenberg, Joshua L. Dratel
New York Times, March 4, 2003
The United States military has begun a criminal investigation into the death of an Afghan man in American custody in December, a death described as a ''homicide'' by an American pathologist.
A death certificate, dated Dec. 13 and signed by Maj. Elizabeth A. Rouse, a pathologist with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, based in Washington, says the man died as a result of ''blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease.''
The Afghan, known by the single name Dilawar, a 22-year-old farmer and part-time taxi driver from this village in eastern Afghanistan, died in December while being held in the main United States air base at Bagram, north of Kabul.
Details of his death have not been made public by the United States Army, which said simply that Mr. Dilawar had coronary artery disease and had died of a heart attack. He was found collapsed in cell on Dec. 10, shortly after being detained near the perimeter of an American Army base in southeast Afghanistan.
Two former prisoners, Abdul Jabar and Hakkim Shah, who recalled seeing Mr. Dilawar at Bagram, said the conditions to which they themselves were subjected at the time included standing naked, hooded and shackled, being kept immobile for long periods and being deprived of sleep for days on end.
Such accounts appear to raise troubling questions about the conditions of detention and the interrogation of prisoners in the fight against terror. President Bush said in January that ''3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries.'' He added that ''many others have met a different fate'' and ''are no longer a problem to the United States.''
Lt. Gen. Daniel K. McNeill, the United States commander of the coalition force in Afghanistan, interviewed at Bagram air base north of Kabul, said every aspect of Mr. Dilawar's death was being examined in a continuing criminal investigation.
General McNeill acknowledged that prisoners had been made to stand for long periods. But he denied that they had been chained to the ceiling or held in chains attached to the ceiling and said he was confident that conditions at Bagram did not endanger lives.
''Our interrogation techniques are adapted,'' he said. ''They are in accordance with what is generally accepted as interrogation techniques, and if incidental to the due course of this investigation, we find things that need to be changed, we will certainly change them.''
Found in this small village, Mr. Dilawar's elder brother, Shahpoor, produced the death certificate, saying he had kept the document in his pocket since it was handed over to his uncle by a United States military officer in Kabul along with his brother's body on Jan. 17. He said he did not fully understand what the paper said.
The certificate describes the circumstances of death: ''Decedent was found unresponsive in his cell while in custody.'' Under ''mode of death,'' there are four boxes listing ''natural, accident, suicide, homicide.'' The box for homicide is marked with a capital X.
The United States military confirmed the authenticity of the document, although it had not disclosed its existence before its discovery here in this eastern Afghan village.
Chris Kelly, public affairs director at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, speaking from Washington, said Major Rouse had taken part in the autopsies of two Afghan men who died in custody at Bagram last year, one of whom was Mr. Dilawar.
''She is part of a global response team and any time we have suspicious, unusual deaths, or deaths that are not natural, our medical staff would go out,'' he said. ''This is a typical case we would go to.''
Major Rouse would not be available for interview, he said.
The spokesman for the United States-led force in Afghanistan, Col. Roger King, said in an e-mail message that the choice of the box ''homicide'' to describe the death meant only that ''the doctor felt something besides the other choices listed (natural, accident, suicide) led to the death.''
What exactly Dr. Rouse meant by ''homicide'' is not clear. Nor is the precise way in which Mr. Dilawar was treated, but Mr. Shah, the former prisoner, said he had seen Mr. Dilawar with his feet chained. He could not attest to other specific conditions of the dead man's detention.
So far no military personnel have been arrested or suspended in connection with the death, nor have any changes been made to routines inside the detention center, General McNeill said.
''We haven't found anything that requires us to take extraordinary action,'' he said. ''We are going to let this investigation run its course.''
He described Mr. Dilawar as having an advanced heart condition and said his coronary arteries were 85 percent blocked.
Another Afghan man also died in American custody on Dec. 3. He was Mullah Habibullah, brother of a former Taliban commander. He was about 30, from the southern province of Oruzgan, and was held in the same detention center at Bagram.
His family said no American official had given them any information or explanation about the death, which was learned from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Neither man's family has received compensation for the deaths.
''Only God knows why he died,'' Hajji Rahim Gul, his father, said in an interview by satellite telephone from his hometown of Tirin Kot, Orzugan's provincial capital. ''I am an old man. I don't know what happened to him.''
The United States military said Mr. Habibullah had died of a pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in the lung.
Both men died within days of arriving at Bagram air base. They were being held in interrogation cells on the second floor of the detention building, a large hangar divided into isolation and interrogation cells upstairs, and an open-plan detention area downstairs, according to descriptions provided by the two former detainees, Mr. Jabar and Mr. Shah, and others.
They described as many as 100 prisoners held there, separated into groups by wire-mesh dividing walls.
Mr. Jabar and Mr. Shah said they had been made to stand hooded, their arms raised and chained to the ceiling, their feet shackled, unable to move for hours at a time, day and night.
Mr. Jabar said he endured this treatment for 13 days. The prisoners, he said, were freed from their standing position only to eat, pray and go to the bathroom.
Mr. Shah said he had spent 16 days in the upstairs rooms, standing for 10 of them until his legs became so swollen that the shackles around his ankles tightened and stopped the blood flow.
He said he was naked the entire time and allowed to dress only when he was taken for interrogation or to the bathroom. Mr. Shah said the cold kept him awake, as did the American guards, who kicked and shouted at him to stop him falling asleep.
None of four former prisoners interviewed said they had been beaten. But some said they had been kicked by their guards and interrogators, either to prevent them from sleeping or during their interrogations.
Mr. Shah said he had been kicked hard just above the knee by a woman interrogator, while her male colleague held him in a kneeling position. The pain and humiliation was the worst part of his incarceration, he said. ''It was a woman kicking me, and I had no power,'' he said.
Mr. Dilawar, who had a wife and 2-year-old daughter, was arrested, along with two other men, when his taxi was stopped by Afghan soldiers guarding the perimeter of the United States army base Salerno, on the outskirts of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan, according to his father and brother and local government officials.
They said the three were innocent and arrested because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That morning two rockets had been fired at the base, and Mr. Dilawar passed by at noon, they said. The soldiers found a stabilizer, a machine used to regulate electricity, in the trunk of his car. One of the passengers, Parkhudin, 30, a local policeman from the village of Turiuba, had a broken walkie-talkie with him. The other passenger, Zakhim, 25, was from the same village.
The Afghan soldiers handed them over to the American soldiers in the base at Khost. Both men who were with Mr. Dilawar are still in custody.
On Dec. 5, Mr. Dilawar was admitted to Bagram, according to a document handed back with his body that also listed his personal effects. Five days later he was dead.
Mr. Jabar, 35, a taxi driver from a town near Yakubi, says he remembers seeing Mr. Dilawar, hooded, being led downstairs to the bathroom. ''I asked who he was because he was struggling a lot,'' he said.
Mr. Dilawar seemed to be in distress because he could not breathe through the thick material of the hood, Mr. Jabar said, and when the guard released his chains, he lay down on the ground. ''I was sure he was uncomfortable,'' Mr. Jabar said.
''I told him, 'Don't struggle because you make it worse for yourself.' '' he said. ''I said, 'Don't worry, you'll be there a few days and then you will be moved downstairs where it's better. He was scared because he could not get enough oxygen.''
Mr. Shah, 32, a farmer from the small village of Danai near the Pakistani border, also saw Mr. Dilawar once when he was being made to sweep the big room downstairs. ''He did not look healthy,'' he said. ''His face was a dark color. His feet were chained so he could not move well. He was looking very worried.''
During his time in the upstairs rooms, Mr. Shah said, a doctor visited him three times, and eventually they let him sit down in the cell. When they opened his shackles, he said, his feet were so swollen that he could not feel or move them. Nearly three months later, he says his legs still cause him pain.
The prisoners were kept for roughly two weeks in the cells upstairs and every day taken to an interrogation room where two or three intelligence officers questioned them.
Later they were moved downstairs, where the treatment was more lenient. Still shackled but no longer masked, they could sit and lie down and could read the Koran.
Mr. Dilawar's family and friends described him as an inexperienced young man, ill prepared to handle tough interrogation and incarceration. ''He had never spent a night away from his father and mother,'' his brother said.
Neither of the two men who died in Bagram were seen by officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who regularly visit prisoners in detention there.
Red Cross officials said they did not have access to all the detainees, and from accounts of former prisoners, they do not visit the prisoners chained in the upstairs cells.
Caroline Douilliez, a spokeswoman in Kabul, said the Red Cross, which helped trace the families of the dead men and arrange the handover of the bodies, had raised concerns with the United States military over conditions in the detention center and the two deaths there.