The International Committee of the Red Cross told the Pentagon as early as 2002 detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison had reported U.S. personnel mishandled the Koran, Red Cross and U.S. officials said on Thursday.
The acknowledgment of the documentation of alleged abuse of the Koran came as Washington sought to defuse anger in the Muslim world after Newsweek reported the Muslim holy book was flushed down the toilet at the Guantanamo prison. The magazine retracted the article on Monday after it sparked deadly riots and was condemned by the Bush administration.
The International Committee of the Red Cross told the Pentagon "multiple" times in 2002 and early 2003 prisoners at the base in Cuba alleged U.S. officials showed "disrespect" for the Muslim holy book, said Simon Schorno, an ICRC spokesman.
"The U.S. government took corrective measures and those allegations have not resurfaced," Schorno said.
The ICRC spokesman declined to specify if the complaints included the flushing of the Koran down the toilet or if U.S. officials used the disrespect as part of interrogations. Members of the humanitarian organization, which is given access to the prison, did not witness any mishandling of the Koran.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the ICRC has come to the Pentagon "on rare occasion" with allegations made by detainees at Guantanamo.
"They are consistent with the type of things that we have talked about, what we have found in log entries (at Guantanamo), to include things like a Koran inadvertently falling to the floor," Whitman said.
Former Guantanamo prisoners and lawyers for detainees have for months accused U.S. personnel at Guantanamo of putting the Koran into toilets. Pentagon officials said this week they did not consider such statements as credible allegations meriting investigation.
Human Rights Watch said the dispute over Newsweek's report overshadowed the fact that religious humiliation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere has been widespread.
"Around the world, the United States has been humiliating Muslim detainees by offending their religious beliefs," Reed Brody of the New York-based group said.
The group cited a former Army translator, who accused Guantanamo guards of routinely tossing the Koran on the ground.
Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with reverence.
RULES ON HANDLING OF KORAN
In January 2003, the U.S. military issued guidelines to personnel at the base that included the order: "Ensure that the Koran is not placed in offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet or dirty/wet areas."
"The guidelines didn't come out of nowhere. You don't get such orders unless there's some problem, concern or controversy," said a U.S. official who asked not to be named.
Whitman said that "to the best of my knowledge" the concerns presented by the ICRC did not prompt the memo.
The U.S. Southern Command, responsible for Guantanamo, Cuba, began a fact-finding inquiry last week in the aftermath of the Newsweek report into whether U.S. personnel at the prison put the Koran in toilets. The Pentagon has said it has so far found nothing to substantiate the allegation.
Anti-American sentiment has been strong in the Muslim world because of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the later detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
The Newsweek report sparked violent protests in Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, and in Pakistan, Indonesia and Gaza.
The Pentagon said it holds about 520 foreigners at Guantanamo, many there for nearly 3-1/2 years. Most were caught in the Afghanistan war.