WASHINGTON - At least two dozen detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan have died at the hands of U.S. forces in confirmed or suspected cases of criminal homicide, military officials said on Wednesday.
The Army Criminal Investigation Command looked into the deaths of 79 prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan dating back to 2002 in 68 separate investigations, according to figures released by the Army.
The number of homicide deaths among detainees is far higher than figures previously acknowledged by the Pentagon.
For example, last week's report by Navy Vice Adm. Albert Church on military detainee operations referred to only six cases of deaths due to "substantiated detainee abuse."
The Army investigated 24 cases involving confirmed or suspected homicides and another 11 cases of confirmed or suspected justifiable homicides. One example was a U.S. soldier who acted in self-defense when attacked by a prisoner.
Another 28 cases involved detainee deaths deemed natural or accidental, and five cases in which the cause of death was listed as "undetermined."
"The Army is absolutely committed to getting to the truth involved in each of these cases. One case is one too many. We are aggressively investigating allegations of detainee abuse, and we go where the information takes us," said Col. Joe Curtin, a spokesman at the Pentagon.
The Army, which defines homicide as a death caused by intentional or grossly reckless behavior, did not provide an accounting of the circumstances of the 24 homicide deaths or the disciplinary action taken in the cases.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which handles criminal cases involving Navy and Marine Corps personnel, has looked into eight cases involving detainee deaths, Navy officials said.
One case deemed justifiable homicide and another case of death by natural causes were closed, but six cases remained open, officials said.
Since last year's revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, U.S. treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has faced international criticism.
Human rights activists called the latest detainee death figures troubling.
"This is now a number that they are reporting. But it begs the question of how many are they not reporting," said Amnesty International official Jumana Musa.
Musa said the prisoner deaths were a "logical conclusion" of policies approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government for coercive interrogations, with a very limited view of what constituted torture.
Human Rights Watch lawyer James Ross said he was disturbed by the number of detainee abuse cases in which U.S. troops have been given relatively mild administrative punishment rather than a court-martial.
Curtin said the Army puts serious effort into investigating detainee deaths, and is willing to reopen closed cases if new information surfaces.
"There are critics who would say that we're covering up, and that is absolutely untrue," Curtin added. "We want to be as transparent as we can without disrupting the investigative process."