WASHINGTON -- At least 26 prisoners have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 in what Army and Navy investigators have concluded or suspect were acts of criminal homicide, according to military officials.
The number of confirmed or suspected cases is much higher than any accounting the military has previously reported. A Pentagon report sent to Congress last week cited only six prisoner deaths caused by abuse, but that partial tally was limited to what the author, Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III of the Navy, called "closed, substantiated abuse cases" as of September.
The new figure of 26 was provided by the Army and Navy this week after repeated inquiries. In 18 cases reviewed by the Army and Navy, investigators have closed their inquiries and have recommended them for prosecution or referred them to other agencies for action, Army and Navy officials said. Eight cases are still under investigation but are listed by the Army as confirmed or suspected criminal homicides, the officials said.
Only one of the deaths occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, officials said, showing how broadly the most violent abuses extended beyond those prison walls and contradicting early impressions that the wrongdoing was confined to a handful of military police on the prison's night shift.
Among the cases are at least four involving CIA employees that are being reviewed by the Justice Department for possible prosecution. They include a killing in Afghanistan in June 2003 for which David Passaro, a contract worker for the CIA, is now facing trial in federal court in North Carolina.
Human rights groups expressed dismay at the number of criminal homicides and renewed their call for a Sept. 11-style inquiry into detention operations and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This number to me is quite astounding," said James D. Ross, senior legal adviser for Human Rights Watch in New York. "This just reflects an overall failure to take seriously the abuses that have occurred."
Pentagon and Army officials rebutted that accusation. Lawrence Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said he was not aware that the Defense Department had previously accounted publicly for criminal homicides among the detainee deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he insisted that military authorities were vigorously pursuing each case.
"I have not seen the numbers collected in the way you described them, but obviously one criminal homicide is one too many," said Di Rita, who noted that U.S. forces have held more than 50,000 detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past three years.
Army officials said the killings took place both inside and outside detention areas, including at the point of capture in often violent battlefield conditions. "The Army will investigate every detainee death both inside and outside detention facilities," said Col. Joseph Curtin, a senior Army spokesman. "Simply put, detainee abuse is not tolerated, and the Army will hold soldiers accountable."
In his report last week, Church concluded that the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan had been the result primarily of a breakdown of discipline, not flawed policies or misguided direction from commanders or Pentagon officials. But Church cautioned that his conclusions were "based primarily on the information available to us as of September 30th, 2004," and he added, "Should additional information become available, our conclusions would have to be considered in light of that information."
In addition to the criminal homicides, an additional 11 cases involving prisoner deaths at the hands of U.S. troops are now listed as justifiable homicides that should not be prosecuted, Army officials said. Those cases included killings caused by U.S. soldiers in suppressing prisoner riots in Iraq, they said. Other prisoners have died in captivity of natural causes, the military has found.
An accounting by The New York Times in May 2004, based on reports from military officials and a review of Army documents, identified 16 cases of confirmed or suspected homicide involving prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. At that time, however, just five were listed as confirmed homicides, with 11 of the cases still under investigation.
The Army defines a homicide as "a death that results from the intentional (explicit or implied) or grossly reckless behavior of another person or persons. Homicide is not synonymous with murder (a legal determination) and includes both criminal actions and excusable incidents (i.e., self-defense, law enforcement, combat)," according to a statement.
The new total of 26 cases involving prisoner deaths confirmed or suspected of being criminal homicides includes 24 cases investigated by the Army and two cases by the Navy, spokesmen for those services said. Two of the Army cases have since been referred to the Navy, and one case to the Justice Department. The Navy said each case included a single prisoner death, but the Army said it was possible that some of the cases investigated by the service involved the death of more than one prisoner. The Marine Corps said nine Iraqi detainees have died in Marine custody, but that none was a homicide. It is unclear if this number includes the death of an Iraqi captive shot by a Marine in a mosque in Fallujah in November, an incident filmed by a TV crew.