When Torture Kills

by Andy Worthington
Excerpted from “When Torture Kills”

Often, the premise of media discussions of torture is that “torture” is something that was confined to waterboarding and used only on three “high-value” detainees accused of being high-level al-Qaeda operatives.

The reality is completely different.

The interrogation and detention regime implemented by the US has resulted in the deaths of over 100 detainees in US custody. Many of these were caused by “authorized” methods, including extreme stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation and others. Here are some of the stories that have been uncovered thus far.

Murders in Bagram airbase

Many of the new recruits had no experience in interrogation. They were given few guidelines about how to behave, and had virtual carte blanche to treat the prisoners as they saw fit. It became standard procedure to use stress positions and sleep deprivation, with interrogation sessions lasting 32 to 36 hours.

It also became standard policy that new prisoners were hooded, shackled and kept in isolation for the first 24 hours of their imprisonment, and sometimes for the first three days. Writing for the New York Times in May 2005, journalist Tim Golden noted that prisoners were handcuffed and chained to the ceilings and doors of their cells, sometimes for several days.

Bagram became a place of random brutality. Golden described how sometimes “the torment seems to have been driven by little more than boredom or cruelty, or both.” In statements to army investigators, soldiers mentioned a prisoner who was “forced to roll back and forth on the floor of a cell, kissing the boots of his two interrogators as he went,” and another who was “made to pick plastic bottle caps out of a drum mixed with excrement and water as part of a strategy to soften him up for questioning.”

The interrogators at Bagram soon incorporated a new technique, the peroneal strike, described by Tim Golden as “a potentially disabling blow to the side of the leg, just above the knee,” which soon became widely applied. According to a military trainer in the US — a former police officer — “he would never use such strikes because they would ‘tear up’ a prisoner’s legs.”

December 2002: After kneeing a soldier in the groin during an anal probe, Mullah Habibullah was taken to an isolation cell and shackled by his wrists to the wire ceiling. The following two days, when he was still “uncooperative,” he was given several peroneal strikes by one of the soldiers. By the fourth day, he was coughing and complaining of chest pains, and his interrogator allowed him to sit on the floor because he was unable to bend his knees to sit down. Despite this, the violence increased the next day, when two MPs gave him nine peroneal strikes while he was handcuffed to the ceiling in one of the isolation cells. When three soldiers came to his cell later in the day and pulled off his hood, he was already dead. A medic told the military investigators, “It looked like he had been dead a while, and it looked like nobody cared.”

The second victim was a taxi driver named Dilawar, who was brought in the day after the death of Mullah Habibullah. He was picked up at a checkpoint after a broken walkie-talkie was found on one of the passengers and an electric stabilizer for a generator was found in the trunk of the car.

After the first night, when Dilawar was handcuffed to a fence to prevent him from sleeping, his interrogation began. Although Dilawar was only a small, frail man, he was regarded as non-compliant, when he apparently spat in the face of a soldier, who gave him a couple of peroneal strikes, which made him cry out, “Allah.” The soldier explained, “Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny. It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a peroneal strike just to hear him scream out ‘Allah.’ It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.”

Over the next two days, Dilawar was subjected to brutal interrogations, in which few words were actually spoken. Unable to assume a stress position in the first session, because his legs were so damaged, he was repeatedly thrown against the wall, and, according to the interpreter, a violent female interrogator stamped on his bare foot with her boot, and kicked him in the groin. The following day, after being chained to the ceiling once more, he was unable to kneel and kept falling asleep. After asking for a drink and being sprayed with water until he gagged, he was returned to his cell and chained up once more. By the following morning he was dead.

The army pathologist assessing Dilawar’s death stated unequivocally that his heart failed because of “blunt force injuries to the lower extremities.”

The extent of his injuries was later summed up by two coroners: one said that his legs had “basically been pulpified,” and the other said, “I’ve seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus.”

The investigation into these murders led to various minor punishments and reprimands for the soldiers involved.

According to three former British prisoners, several additional murders resulting from beatings occurred at Bagram as well. These appear to have never been investigated.

Additionly, Omar Deghayes, a British resident who was also held at Bagram and later released, explained that he had witnessed two other murders in Bagram. Deghayes said that he “witnessed a prisoner shot dead after he had gone to the aid of an inmate who was being beaten and kicked by the guards” and that he was also nearby when another prisoner was beaten to death: “One by the name of Abdaulmalik, was beaten until I heard no sound of him after the screaming. There was afterwards panic in prison and the guards running about in fear saying to each other the Arab has died. I have not seen this young man again.”

A murder in the “Salt Pit”

The existence of the “Salt Pit,” [a secret CIA prison] housed in an abandoned brick factory north of Kabul, remained a closely guarded secret until 2005, when two stories emerged to blow its cover. The first of these was a previously unreported murder, which was exposed by Dana Priest in the Washington Post in March 2005. Priest reported that in November 2002, a recently-promoted CIA officer, who had been put in charge of the facility, in the absence of any senior personnel who were willing to take the job, “ordered guards to strip naked an uncooperative young Afghan detainee, chain him to the concrete floor and leave him there overnight without blankets.” Following their orders, the guards then dragged him around the floor before putting him in his cell, where he died of hypothermia during the night.

According to a senior US official, he then “disappeared from the face of the earth”: he was hastily buried in an unmarked grave, his family was never notified of his death, and the CIA officer in charge of the prison was promoted.

More murders in US custody

Throughout 2003, at least three more prisoners were murdered by Americans in three different forward operating bases that were part of this arbitrary, indiscriminate and unaccountable prison system.

In Gardez, in March 2003, Jamal Naseer, an 18-year old Afghan army recruit, was captured with seven other Afghan soldiers. After being treated “like animals” for 17 days, according to some of the other men, who said that they were hung upside down and struck repeatedly with sticks, rubber hoses and cables, immersed in cold water, made to lie in the snow, and subjected to electric shocks.

Naseer’s body, covered in bruises, was turned over to the local police with no documentation of his death and no autopsy results.

Three months later, in Asadabad, 28-year old Abdul Wali, who handed himself in voluntarily in connection with a rocket attack in which he was not involved, was beaten to death by David Passaro, a civilian contractor working with the CIA, who assaulted him “using his hands and feet, and a large flashlight” over a two-day period.

And in November, at a base in Gereshk, another Afghan, Abdul Wahid, died from “multiple blunt force injuries” according to his autopsy report, 48 hours after he was handed over by Afghan forces.

As with the murders in 2002, the authorities were unwilling to pursue investigations. An inquest into Naseer’s death did not begin until September 2004, after the story surfaced in the media, and in January 2007 the only outcome was that two soldiers received an “administrative remand” for failing to report the murder.

In Abdul Wahid’s case, the authorities absolved themselves of blame by claiming that his injuries were sustained in Afghan custody, and in Abdul Wali’s case, David Passaro was charged with assault [not murder] in June 2004, and was sentenced to eight years in prison in February 2007.


As retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey explained to MSNBC, “We should never, as a policy, maltreat people under our control, detainees. We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the CIA.”

Bear in mind that the accounts described above only deal with 10 murders in Afghanistan, and not the 90-plus murders in US custody in Iraq.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. See also The Interrogators by Chris Mackey, a former Bagram interrogator.

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