Scant Evidence Cited in Long Detention of Iraqis

[ According to a report completed last fall by the Army’s provost marshall, only some of which has been made public,

Iraqis had been held for several months for nothing more than expressing “displeasure or ill will” toward the American occupying forces.

According to the New York Times’ report, this appears to be in reference to Abu Ghraib, and in conflict with Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt’s claim that

“If they were innocent, they wouldn’t be at Abu Ghraib.”

… unless, of course, it is illegal to express displeasure toward occupying forces. –BL ]

May 30, 2004 | New York Times


WASHINGTON, May 29 — Hundreds of Iraqi prisoners were held in Abu Ghraib prison for prolonged periods despite a lack of evidence that they posed a security threat to American forces, according to an Army report completed last fall.

The unpublished report, by Maj. Gen. Donald J. Ryder, reflects what other senior Army officers have described as a deep concern among some American officers and officials in Iraq over the refusal of top American commanders in Baghdad to authorize the release of so-called security prisoners. Some of those prisoners were held for interrogation at Abu Ghraib in the cellblock that became the site of the worst abuses at the prison.

General Ryder, the Army’s provost marshal, reported that some Iraqis had been held for several months for nothing more than expressing “displeasure or ill will” toward the American occupying forces. The Nov. 5 report said the process for deciding which arrested Iraqis posed security risks justifying imprisonment, and for deciding when to release them, violated the Pentagon’s own policies. It also said the conditions in which they were held sometimes violated the Geneva Conventions.

General Ryder’s report to Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the top American commander in Iraq,, was obtained by The New York Times. It was based on a review of prisons in Iraq last summer and fall and made no mention of abuses at Abu Ghraib. But it warned that the continuing influx of prisoners being arrested as the American-led occupation forces fought a persistent insurrection would strain the system set up to review each case every six months, as required by international law.

“A more disciplined system would reduce the security internee population and inherent challenge of holding Iraqis that feel they have been unjustly detained,” he wrote.

The position of provost marshal general dates to the Revolutionary Army, but was re-established only last October as part of a restructuring. The provost marshal general oversees law enforcement and prisons, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan holding prisoners of war and other detainees.

Since the scope of abuses at Abu Ghraib first began to come to light late last month, the military has begun to discharge prisoners from the facility at a rapidly accelerated rate. On Friday alone, 624 Iraqi prisoners were freed from the prison, in the fourth such release in May.

But the military has offered little public explanation of the process of deciding who should be released and who should remain in prison. In Baghdad this week, the top American military spokesman in Iraq offered a vigorous defense of the procedures used by American commanders for determining which Iraqi prisoners should be freed.

“We don’t put them in Abu Ghraib to detain them for a period of time or to detain them until proven innocent,” said the spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt. “They are deemed to be a security threat by a judge through multiple sources of evidence. It’s that simple.

“If they were innocent, they wouldn’t be at Abu Ghraib,” he said.

In interviews, senior Army officers have described senior officers on General Sanchez’s staff as having been the major obstacle to releasing prisoners from Abu Ghraib. The officers have said in particular that Brig. Gen. Barbara Fast, the top Army intelligence officer in Iraq, often ruled last fall against the release of prisoners, even against the recommendation of a military police commander and military intelligence officers at the prison.

The report by General Ryder recommended that the final judgments on the release of security prisoners be elevated from the three-person review board in Iraq to the level of an assistant secretary of defense. But American commanders in Baghdad have not announced such a change in procedures.

“The percentage of persons that were released because they’ve served their time — that percentage is zero,” said General Kimmitt when he was asked this week about the reasons for the releases. “The number that were released because they were innocent? That number, too, is zero. Persons are held at Abu Ghraib because they are determined to be security threats, imminent security threats here in country.”

Tensions between American officials at the prison, including Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, and senior American officers in Baghdad, including General Fast, over the release of prisoners from Abu Ghraib last fall were first described publicly in the investigative report into the abuses by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, which emerged last month.

That report described General Fast, who headed a three-member detainee release board, as sometimes vetoing recommendations to release prisoners that were made by General Karpinski, then the commander in charge at Abu Ghraib, and Col. Marc Warren, a top legal officer on General Sanchez’s staff.

A confidential report in February by the International Committee of the Red Cross said that “military intelligence officers told the I.C.R.C. that in their estimate between 70 percent and 90 percent of the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake.” Some of those people were released by units in the field without ever being sent to a permanent prison like the main one at Abu Ghraib, the report said.

In interviews since, a senior Army officer who served in Iraq criticized as overly cumbersome a process in which the Iraqi prisoners labeled as security detainees, as opposed to common criminals, could be freed only by the release board.

In one incident described in detail by the senior Army officer, an aggressive roundup in September brought 57 Iraqis into custody. But a review by military intelligence officers at Abu Ghraib determined that only two had intelligence value and that the rest should be freed.

An American general at the headquarters in Baghdad overruled that decision, and dictated that all 57 Iraqis be kept in custody.

In addition, the officer said, early judgments about who was a security prisoner were often made in haste and in error. “But once they were tagged as security detainees, it was very hard to get them released,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern over retribution from superiors.

Only a few paragraphs of the report by General Ryder have previously been made public. They were summarized or cited in General Taguba’s report, which was completed in March and represented the results of the first major Army inquiry into the abuses, and focused on the conduct of the military police. A second major report, by Maj. Gen. George W. Fay, is focusing on the role played by military intelligence, and is expected to be completed next week.

General Ryder’s review last summer of American detention facilities in Iraq was the first of two separate major studies conducted at the time, when the scope of the anti-American insurgency and its impact on American prisons in Iraq was just becoming apparent.

A second study, by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, then the American commander at the detention facility at Guant?namo Bay, Cuba, remains classified. But public accounts by senior American commanders and Pentagon officials have said that it focused more closely on issues related to interrogation and that it included a recommendation that the military police who served as guards at the prison be integrated more closely into an interrogation process overseen by military intelligence officers.

In Baghdad this week, General Kimmitt defended the procedures used by American commanders there as being even more rigorous than those required by international law. “There is a review board that is set up that is done far more frequently than required by the Geneva Conventions where a board takes a look at that person’s case,” he said. “And after a period of time, when those persons are deemed to no longer be a threat to the security of the nation, then they are released.”

A review of General Ryder’s report and of other documents and testimony about the detention system shows that there is still considerable uncertainty over the justice of the system, which is strained by the arrests of hundreds of people each week.

General Ryder recommended that “the process of screening security internees should include intelligence findings, interrogation results and a current threat assessment.” He said these analyses should be provided to the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, a Pentagon civilian, who should provide “guidance for decisions” on whom to hold and whom to release, ensuring that the military was “carefully determining which detainees are to be classified as security detainees.”

American officials in Baghdad have provided no indication that this recommendation was adopted. A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, said in Baghdad on Friday that there were still 6,500 Iraqi detainees in Iraq, with 3,000 in Abu Ghraib alone. But he said the detainees’ cases were being reviewed by military judges and lawyers, as part of an accelerated process that General Sanchez outlined in early May.

At the time of his report last November, General Ryder said that there were about 3,400 security internees in custody, and that about 900 had been released. It is not known how many prisoners now held in Iraq are classified as security internees.

John H. Cushman Jr. contributed reporting for this article.

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