Letters: Shiite Militia

Listeners respond to a report about a Shiite militia's relationship with Iran. Many listeners raise concerns about whether Morning Edition passed on information apparently obtained through torture.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A description of torture led to many of your comments this week.

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INSKEEP: We hear from you every week on MORNING EDITION, and this morning we're going to examine just one report that generated a lot of response. It concerns whether we should have passed on information apparently obtained through torture.

NPR's Anne Garrels was reporting from Baghdad on a Shiite militia and their relationship with Iran. In the interview with us, she explained that the militia leaders said Iran had infiltrated the militia organization. People's letters came because of the evidence the militia provided. Garrels described what the militia took her to see.

ANNE GARRELS: The head of Sadr's militia in the western side of Baghdad invited NPR to an interrogation session of three of these renegade Sadr militiamen, apparently to show us how the movement is cleaning up its ranks. The three detainees had clearly been tortured. There was blood all over their clothes. They were in such bad shape, they couldn't walk. They had to be dragged onto the chairs. And one of them was just sobbing.

INSKEEP: Sydney Walenski(ph) heard those words on MORNING EDITION in Santa Monica, California, and wrote in to say: Let me get this straight, Anne Garrels in reporting information obtained from a torture victim speaking in the presence of his torturers as if it is credible. Has NPR sunk that low? That's hi question.

We have called NPR's Anne Garrels now to ask about this. And there's a more specific question that some people also asked in - were you there, were you there for the torture?

GARRELS: I did not know that torture has taken place before I got there, and I did not witness the torture. And I think I made it clear I was as appalled as listeners were by the torture that had clearly occurred before I got there.

INSKEEP: What were you told in order to get you to come see these people?

GARRELS: I was simply told that the militia wished us to see that they were cleaning up their ranks, that they were detaining bad people within their ranks who were killing people.

INSKEEP: And did people tell you then directly what kind of torture had taken place, or was it just apparent that horrible things had happened because of the condition of the men that you saw?

GARRELS: It was just apparent that bad things had happened, and quite frankly, NPR was extremely uncomfortable with the situation. We were quite scared. When we got to the location our tape recorders were confiscated temporarily. We were clearly taken in a securest route so that we could not return to the so-called safe house.

INSKEEP: And we should mention that this is how reporting has to get done in these extraordinarily dangerous situations. Is it not correct to say you temporarily put yourself in the hands of this dangerous group? You hear what they have to say and then you get out of there so you can report it independently.

GARRELS: That's correct. You know, the Mehdi militia is in many ways a mystery, and I do not think that I was doing them a service by reporting exactly what we saw, but made it clear that this organization has its own secret courts and that they are - they exact their own kind of justice. And I was in no way do I believe endorsing, far more I was revealing their tactics.

INSKEEP: Now, there is another point that people raised here that gets to the essence of whether you learned anything useful from these people who were apparently been tortured.

Mike Conopaki(ph) of Madison, Wisconsin, writes: I strongly object to this story because, he says, torture victims will say anything their torturers tell them to, especially when they're still being held by their captors. Did you have at any moment any doubts whether they were just making up a story because they didn't want to be beaten anymore?

GARRELS: Of course, I had doubts. But the details that were given seemed to me to gel with other things that I had heard from people who had not been tortured. But I was as uncomfortable as the listeners were with the conditions. The fact that the militia was doing this and making it clear that they had issues with Iran, I thought was important. But, of course, the information that come from victims of torture is always questionable.

INSKEEP: What are some of the details - just one or two - that come to mind that caused you to think these were credible statements even if obtained by not-so-credible means?

GARRELS: The details that came from the questions were such that it went credibility to the story. There were a great number of details about how they operated, who they operated through, why did this. And we do know for a fact that they described posing as Sunnis going into a Shiite neighborhood, raping a Shiite girl. That incident did occur. We were able to confirm that. That was not made up.

INSKEEP: So you were working almost like a police officer in that sense and taking this information that might well be corrupted information, but trying to match it up with other facts that you knew from your long experience in Iraq.

GARRELS: That is correct. We went back to the degree possible and confirmed the information that was elicited from these torture victims. And indeed, many of the incidents they described had happened.

INSKEEP: One more question from a listener here. Steven Kline(ph) of Portland writes: What the hell is going on here? The only appropriate response a reporter should make in this situation is to say that he or she cannot accept torture as a means of obtaining information and will not report any news extracted using it.

And so I would ask based on that, Anne, should you have followed the same strictures as many courts around the world would, which is just I'm not going to accept this information, I'm not going to pass it on, you're not going to use Shiite militiamen and torture these guys, they're not going to get the benefit of passing it onto the world?

GARRELS: Well, if we act like that then we will ignore the reality of the world. I did not condone or endorse in any way the methods that the militia used. On the other hand, to the degree possible, I explained how they were getting their information.

INSKEEP: Did you have a moment, as you discussed this around NPR's Baghdad Bureau where you said maybe we shouldn't even go with this story?

GARRELS: Yes. But we were not a party to this in the sense that we had no idea in advance. We were not told we would see torture victims. When we saw what we believe to have been torture victims, we reported it. And in the end, if you ignore the reality of what these groups are doing and do not say they torture these people, then that's even worse.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anne Garrels has just returned from her latest of many reporting tours in Baghdad.

Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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