As Canada increases its troop commitment in Afghanistan, there is one question no one in Ottawa wants to ask: What happens to prisoners under Canadian control who are turned over to U.S. military forces? Since Canadian policy has been to treat prisoners humanely, maybe it is time to look at how its U.S. coalition partner treats detainees.
A new, 54-page UN report calls for the release of all detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. And in the past several days, new photos of British soldiers abusing Iraqi civilians have appeared in British newspapers.
Australian television has aired images of prisoners being tortured at infamous Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq. The U.S. defence department claims the photos are nothing new and several soldiers have been punished because of it.
What is striking in the new photos are pictures of corpses; no one has ever been convicted of murder in the Abu Ghraib cases. Whether the photos are authentic or not, it would not be shocking to learn that prisoners died while in U.S. care.
On Oct. 24, 2005 the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report that analyzed autopsy and death records of detainees held in American facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Detainees were hooded, water-boarded, gagged, strangled and beaten with various metal objects. At least 44 deaths were attributed to homicides that were committed by U.S. Navy Seals, full-time employees of the CIA, or so-called CIA contract workers or military intelligence or police.
The autopsy reports listed causes of death as "strangulation," "asphyxiation," and "blunt force," and "others due to heart failure from lack of oxygen." Few have been charged and not one has been convicted of murder. The few who have been convicted of abuse have received letters of reprimand and little jail time.
Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Weishofer was charged in 2003 with murdering Iraqi Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush by sealing him headfirst in a sleeping bag and jumping and sitting on the Iraqi's chest while questioning him.
Weishofer faced life in prison. But on Jan. 24 he was convicted on the lesser charges of negligent homicide and negligent dereliction of duty. Instead of being sentenced to three years in prison and a dishonourable discharge, he received a letter of reprimand.
In January 2004, Army Staff Sgt. Shane Werst was charged with murdering an unarmed Iraqi during a search of the man's home. Werst admitted he shot the man. His defence was that the man had lunged at another soldier. But the other soldier testified that Werst had spoken of killing the Iraqi to avenge the death of a friend the previous day.
To make this version credible, Werst fired a bullet into the wall of the home and then placed the pistol in the hand of the dead civilian. The six-man military court found Werst innocent of murder and obstruction of justice.
The death of two young Afghan men at the U.S. Bagram base north of Kabul shines a light on the nature of American military justice. Both men were found hanging in cells in December 2002, in an area controlled by military intelligence, CIA and CIA contract employees.
Other wounds listed on the autopsy report included severe injuries to the legs, as if each man had been run over by a bus. Several soldiers pleaded guilty to minor charges and one received a sentence of five months in prison. The only one convicted at trial received no prison time.
The CIA agents claim "laws do not apply to them" and their contract workers are under no jurisdiction of any kind.
In studying the hundreds of cases involving abuses and death involving U.S. personnel several things stand out.
First, the prosecution never calls witnesses because of claims that it would be a great financial burden to the U.S. government to bring individuals from Iraq or Afghanistan.
Second, the main military defence is that the accused is in a hostile environment and therefore unsure of what constitutes "humane treatment" — a defence that was rejected at Nuremberg after World War II.
However, this does not mean U.S. military courts never convict anyone. For example, two soldiers were caught placing extra armour on their vehicle. Each received a six-month sentence.
Hopefully, Canadians have learned from atrocities in Somalia and will begin to ask hard questions of how the U.S. military is treating prisoners.
Military oversight and accountability are essential for a country's reputation.
Jim Trautman is a freelance journalist from Orton, Ontario (Canada), who specializes in military matters.
© 2006 The Toronto Star