WASHINGTON (AP) -- At least 108 people have died in U.S. custody in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and roughly a quarter of the cases have been investigated as possible U.S. abuse, according to government data provided to The Associated Press.
The figure, far higher than any previously disclosed, includes cases investigated by the Army, Navy, Central Intelligence Agency and Justice Department. Some 65,000 prisoners have been taken during the U.S.-led wars, most later freed.
The Pentagon has never provided comprehensive information on how many prisoners taken during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have died. The 108 figure, based on information supplied by Army, Navy and other government officials, includes deaths attributed to natural causes.
To human rights groups, the deaths form a clear pattern.
"Despite the military's own reports of deaths and abuses of detainees in U.S. custody, it is astonishing that our government can still pretend that what is happening is the work of a few rogue soldiers," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "No one at the highest levels of our government has yet been held accountable for the torture and abuse, and that is unacceptable."
To the Pentagon, each death is a distinct case, meriting an investigation but not attributable to any single faulty military policy. Pentagon officials point to military investigations that have found that no policy condoned abuse.
Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. John Skinner said the military has taken steps to reduce the chance of violent uprisings at its prisons and the use of excessive force by soldiers, and also has improved the health care available to prisoners.
"The military has dramatically improved detention operations, everything from increased oversight and improved facilities to expanded training and the availability of state-of-the-art medical care," he said in a statement.
Some death investigations have resulted in courts-martial and convictions, others in reprimands. Many are still open. In some cases, during riots and escape attempts, soldiers were found to have used deadly force properly.
The most serious sentence handed out in the completed cases is three years imprisonment, which was given to two soldiers in separate cases.
Pfc. Edward Richmond was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for shooting Muhamad Husain Kadir, an Iraqi cowherd, in the back of the head on Feb. 28, 2004; Richmond said he saw Kadir lunge for another soldier.
Staff Sgt. Johnny M. Horne pleaded guilty to killing a critically wounded Iraqi teenager in Sadr City, Iraq, on Aug. 18, 2004. Horne described it as a mercy killing.
In Iraq, the military is currently holding around 8,900 people at its two largest prisons, Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca.
At least two prisoners died during interrogation, in incidents that raise the question of torture. Human rights groups say there are others:
- Manadel al-Jamadi, a suspect in the bombing of a Red Cross facility in Baghdad, died Nov. 4, 2003, while hanging by his wrists in a shower room at Abu Ghraib prison. Nine SEALs and one sailor have been accused of abusing al-Jamadi and others in Iraq. The CIA and Justice Department are also investigating the death.
- Four Fort Carson, Colo., soldiers, including three in military intelligence, are charged with murder for the death of an Iraqi major general who died in November 2003. The CIA has also acknowledged that one of its officers may have been involved and referred the case to the Justice Department for investigation.
Of the prisoner deaths:
- At least 26 have been investigated as criminal homicides involving possible abuse.
- At least 29 are attributed to suspected natural causes or accident.
- 22 died during an insurgent mortar attack on April 6, 2004, on Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
- At least 21 are attributed to "justifiable homicide," when U.S. troops used deadly force against rioting, escaping or threatening prisoners and investigations found the troops acted appropriately.
The majority of the death investigations were conducted by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, as most prisoners are held in Army-run facilities.
In many of the cases, resolution has not been swift. Military officials have attributed this in part to the difficulties of conducting investigations in war zones, and they say accuracy is more important than speed.
"Our special agents have literally been mortared and shot at while going about investigative duties," said Army spokesman Christopher Grey.
Grey said Army investigators have looked into 79 deaths in 68 incidents. Most were in Iraq. No prisoners have died at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the third major site for prisoners since the Sept. 11 attacks.
A Navy official said the Navy Criminal Investigative Service has investigated eight deaths. One of those, of al-Jamadi, has also been investigated by the Army and is counted among their numbers, officials said.
The CIA and Justice Department have looked into four deaths that may have involved agency personnel or contractors. One CIA contractor has been charged with assault in connection with a third death investigation in Afghanistan. The fourth death was attributed to hypothermia, not mistreatment.