By Tom Squitieri and Dave Moniz
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Army's inspector general and criminal division are investigating whether U.S. troops deliberately or negligently exposed Iraqi prisoners to extreme heat and cold in ways that contributed to deaths that have until now been attributed to natural or unknown causes.
Depending on the findings, some of the deaths could be reclassified as homicides, and charges could be brought against U.S. personnel, military officials say.
At least 11 of the 15 Iraqi prisoner deaths currently ruled as due to natural or undetermined causes came during periods of extreme heat or cold at Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad or at other U.S.-run prison facilities in Iraq, according to death certificates released by the Pentagon. A 12th prisoner's death was attributed to heat.
The re-examination of the deaths was triggered in part by a lawsuit that cites prisoners' complaints that they suffered severe heat distress and dehydration or were drenched with water and exposed to cold nighttime temperatures at prisons in Iraq. The lawsuit was filed June 9 by the Center for Constitutional Rights in U.S. District Court in San Diego against two private companies whose employees worked as interrogators and translators at the prisons.
The New York City-based center was originally formed to represent civil rights workers in Mississippi, and now it initiates lawsuits for individuals with limited resources.
The class-action suit charges that Titan Corp. and CACI International conspired with U.S. officials to humiliate, torture and abuse the prisoners.
Human rights advocates such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have made similar charges, and the military is re-examining its own accounts of the now-suspect Abu Ghraib deaths in the course of wider, ongoing investigations of prison issues.
The information about the new probes and the circumstances of the deaths comes from three military officials with direct knowledge of the various Army investigations, a report by the Red Cross and from the lawyers who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Iraqi prisoners.
The military officials followed their customary practice of declining to speak for attribution about ongoing investigations.
Prisoners in Iraq are covered by the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit inhumane treatment and the withholding of food, water and other basic necessities. Documents released by the Pentagon on Tuesday showed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has explicitly rejected use of exposure to ''cold weather or water'' in interrogating prisoners; he ruled it out as a technique for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Large range of possible charges
If the investigations of the Iraq deaths conclude that U.S. troops deliberately or negligently exposed prisoners to extreme heat or cold in ways that led to their deaths, potential charges could range from violation of orders and maltreatment of prisoners to involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide or even murder, says John Hutson, president and dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in New Hampshire and a retired admiral who was judge advocate of the Navy until 2000.
Hutson said the range of potential punishments includes life in prison and death.
The military says 37 prisoners have died in U.S custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2002. Fifteen of those deaths have been officially attributed to natural or undetermined causes. Eight others occurred when U.S. troops shot prisoners to stop prison riots; those have been categorized as justifiable homicides.
Nine more are listed as ''suspicious'' deaths that are also under investigation.
The last five deaths are considered homicides or ''deaths outside prison,'' a term generally used when there is incomplete information available to the military regarding the death.
Two of those, both in Iraq, have led to charges or punishment: In one, an Army soldier was court-martialed, reduced in rank and discharged. In another, eight Marines were charged with criminal offenses, two of them with negligent homicide.
In a third case, a CIA civilian contractor was charged June 17 in the beating death of a prisoner held in Afghanistan. The last two death cases, which occurred in Iraq, have been sent by the CIA to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.
Any new charges from the re-examination would result from a two-step process:
* The Army inspector general, as part of an investigation that began in February, is looking at the adequacy of medical care provided to prisoners. The probe is one of at least six Army investigations into prisoner-related matters. It will establish whether heat or cold was a factor in any of the deaths.
* The Army's criminal division would conduct investigations to determine the extent of criminal liability if there is evidence that heat or cold played an important role in the deaths.
''It's not like we have investigated and stopped,'' says Col. Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman. ''They have the ability to reopen these cases. If someone comes forward with a credible complaint of an alleged incident or incidents, the CID (the Army's criminal investigation division) will investigate.''
The deaths now being re-examined include five that occurred between Aug. 7 and Aug. 22, and which military medical examiners attributed to cardiovascular disease or undetermined non-traumatic causes, meaning the deaths weren't the result of injuries.
A sixth death was described by a military death certificate as ''heat-related.'' At least one U.S. soldier died from heat in that month as well.
Three additional deaths attributed to cardiovascular causes occurred between Jan. 8 and Feb. 8 this year, during cold winter nights when the temperatures dipped close to 40 degrees.
'Merits further evaluation'
''A clustering like that merits further evaluation,'' says Allen Keller, director of the Bellevue-New York University Program for Survivors of Torture.
Keller said there is a ''well-founded'' suspicion that should lead investigators to probe what caused all those deaths from cardiovascular disease.
Among the 23 prisoner death certificates released by the military was just one for a heat-related death. That was Tariq Zaid Mohamed, who died Aug. 22 when temperatures topped 130 degrees inside the prison, according to a high-ranking military official with direct knowledge of the progress of the Army investigations.
That official said it was possible that Mohamed and others in the prison were not given enough water or proper care by U.S. personnel. The official said conditions in Abu Ghraib in August were difficult for U.S. troops to properly handle, with thousands of prisoners inside and only a very small U.S. force.
Some of the military personnel in the prison recognized the dangers of the extreme heat.
''I threatened them with ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross),'' Maj. Stacy Garrity, with the 800th Military Police Brigade, said in a sworn statement to Army investigators.
Garrity said she threatened to report abuses to the Red Cross if the detainee interviews were not moved from the stifling rooms.
''We had to stop because the weather was so hot that they might cook in there,'' Garrity said.
Keller, a medical doctor whose organization counsels torture survivors and investigates allegations of torture, said exposure to intense heat without enough water to drink is ''a recipe for disaster.''
Even healthy people can suffer severe reactions in such cases, he said. ''Then take someone who is older or having underlying problems -- they are even at greater risk,'' he said.
Before November 2003, there was no doctor for the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, according to testimony given to Army investigators by Col. Thomas Pappas, brigade commander for military intelligence personnel at the prison.
''Up until that time, there was probably no good methodology for monitoring the health and welfare of the detainees,'' Pappas said.