Human Rights First today issued Command’s Responsibility: Detainee Deaths in US Custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report examines how many detainees have died in U.S. custody, including the circumstances of their deaths, and the consequences (or lack thereof) for those involved. The report identifies systemic problems surrounding these deaths, notably inadequate training and guidance, command interference, an egregious failures in investigation and prosecute.
Since August 2002, nearly 100 detainees have died while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global ‘war on terror’. According to the U.S. military’s own classifications, 34 of these cases are suspected or confirmed homicides; Human Rights First has identified another 11 in which the facts suggest death as a result of physical abuse or harsh conditions of detention. In close to half the deaths Human Rights First surveyed, the cause of death remains officially undetermined or unannounced. Overall, eight people in U.S. custody were tortured to death.
Among our key findings:
Commanders have failed to report deaths of detainees in the custody of their command, reported the deaths only after a period of days and sometimes weeks, or actively interfered in efforts to pursue investigations;
Investigators have failed to interview key witnesses, collect useable evidence, or maintain evidence that could be used for any subsequent prosecution;
Record keeping has been inadequate, further undermining chances for effective investigation or appropriate prosecution;
Overlapping criminal and administrative investigations have compromised chances for accountability;
Overbroad classification of information and other investigation restrictions have left CIA and Special Forces essentially immune from accountability;
Agencies have failed to disclose critical information, including the cause or circumstance of death, in close to half the cases examined;
Effective punishment has been too little and too late.
Command Responsibility is the military doctrine that a “military commander has complete and overall responsibility for all activities within his unit. He alone is responsible for everything his unit does or does not do.” This command responsibility does not, however, extend to criminal responsibility unless the commander knowingly participates in the criminal acts of his men or knowingly fails to intervene and prevent the criminal acts of his men when he had the ability to do so.
In the case of the mistreatment of prisoners, the evidence is mounting of direction from the top, followed by coverup. Meanwhile, the greatest punishment meted out to date to any of soldiers who have been prosecuted is….five months in prison.
(If I’m right that this report does not cover either Guantanamo or secret CIA prisons outside Iraq and Afghanistan, then there are likely more deaths waiting to be entered on the ledger.)