Military injustice

A new report on prisoner abuse says the Army has fallen far short in prosecuting the perpetrators.

By Mark Benjamin
April 26, 2006 9:00PM (UTC)
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Despite the documented involvement of 600 soldiers and civilians in the abuse of roughly 450 prisoners in Iraq, in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay during the past four years, the military has sentenced only 40 soldiers to prison terms in courts-martial. And only 10 of these soldiers are serving prison terms of more than one year, despite evidence of homicides, assault, maltreatment and torture at detention facilities such as Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib.

These numbers highlighting the military's judicial track record to date on prosecuting prisoner abuse are drawn from a 27-page briefing paper released Wednesday morning by three leading human rights organizations. The report (PDF), titled "By the Numbers," states, "U.S. authorities have failed to investigate many allegations, or have investigated them inadequately. And numerous personnel implicated in abuses have not been prosecuted or punished."


The human rights groups found that only three military officers have been convicted in connection with detainee abuse anywhere. The briefing paper also noted that military commanders tended to avoid seeking criminal charges against soldiers who abused prisoners and instead sought weaker "nonjudicial" penalties, such as written reprimands or reductions in rank or pay.

The findings stem from a joint project by Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First and the New York University Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. The paper's authors describe it as the first comprehensive review of the military's response to prisoner abuse allegations.

In an apparently coincidental development, an attorney for Army Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan told the New York Times Tuesday that his client may soon face charges for dereliction of duty, lying to investigators and conduct unbecoming an officer. Jordan was in charge of the interrogation center at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. If Jordan is court-martialed, he will become the only officer to face criminal charges in connection with prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib.


According to the briefing paper, prisoner abuse cases against 20 civilians (such as CIA officers and government contractors) have been referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. So far, there has only been one indictment, which was against a CIA contractor in connection with the death of a detainee in U.S. custody in Afghanistan.

As the human rights organizations point out, the actual extent of detainee abuse is almost certainly higher than what is reflected in their paper because researchers relied primarily on government documents and struggled with "a high level of secrecy" surrounding allegations of prisoner mistreatment. The primary source of the data in the paper was thousands of pages of internal government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act.

The authors of "By the Numbers" note their frustration in trying to learn more about many of these cases from the federal government. The Pentagon states that the Army has investigated 600 allegations of abuse. According to the Army, it has so far dealt with 259 abuse cases through 85 courts-martial, 93 nonjudicial punishments and 81 administrative actions.

Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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