Group Cites Prisoner Abuse by 82nd Airborne

Human Rights Watch has released a report based on conversations with three former members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division that says they routinely beat and abused Iraqi detainees in Fallujah in 2003 and 2004.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Soldiers in the Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division beat and abused prisoners in Iraq during 2003 and 2004 according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The organization based its report on information provided by three former members of the 82nd Airborne. NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam joins us.

Jackie, elaborate a little bit on the details of the report. What's in there?

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

It talks about how soldiers based at the Forward Operating Base in Fallujah, which is just outside of Baghdad, systematically routinely beat and abused Iraqi detainees that were being held there. They called them PUCs--P-U-Cs--people under control. They talked about making them exercise in the ferocious heat to the point where the detainee would just simply pass out. There was one incident that's highlighted in this report and it talks about how one of the soldiers who was a cook actually beat a detainee with a baseball bat and it broke the detainee's legs. And now what's interesting about that and so many of the incidents here is that it seemed in one sense that they were beating and abusing these detainees to get information out of them, intelligence out of them, but on the second hand, they were doing it just to pass time, just to release some of their frustrations, you know, that build up, you know, sitting out at the base or having to go out on patrol.

And the other thing that's very interesting about this is these incidents all took place before and during all the incidents that came to light out of Abu Ghraib and the investigation that was going on at that time. You know, the report says even though, you know, it's always been--the administration has always said, `This is just the work of a few rogue soldiers,' Human Rights Watch actually questions that because again here we have another situation away from Abu Ghraib where this sort of abuse is taking place.

HANSEN: Now how authoritative is this report? As I said in the introduction, it was based on information provided by three former members of the 82nd Airborne.

NORTHAM: Well, that's right. They are three former members. There's a captain and two sergeants, so an officer and two non-commissioned officers. And they gave all the information, as you said, to Human Rights Watch. Now, Human Rights Watch has a very good record since the start of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq for coming out with detailed reports that have turned out to be both damning and accurate about the mistreatment of prisoners in US custody. So the other thing that's very interesting about this report is that the captain, he tried--he says in the--the information that he gave Human Rights Watch, that he tried for 17 months--you know, he approached his chain of command both civilian and military and nothing was done and it was only when he was starting to take the information to two senior members--with the Senate Armed Services Committee, that's when, you know, the Army decided it was going to look into it.

HANSEN: Now has the military, the Army responded?

NORTHAM: Well, the Army says it is now looking into all these allegations right now, and so they'll do that. And the Army has always said, `Lookit, we take any credible allegations and we investigated them.' In fact, you know, they have investigated 300 criminal investigations and, you know, dozens of people have been disciplined, but, you know, nobody higher than very low-level soldiers have ever been really disciplined in this and that's always been one of these things that have really stuck with people because all the investigations and inquiries have been done by either the military, so the military investigating the military, or by a panel that was, you know, brought on by the military.

HANSEN: So where would this investigation go from here?

NORTHAM: It's very difficult to say. It might go the same way. It might launch an inquiry, but Human Rights Watch, many, many other groups like that, are saying, `Lookit, we need something along the lines of 9-11 Commission. There's just too many reports like this, you know, from captains, sergeants, officers, non-commissioned officers, that we can't keep ignoring it. We have to have an independent commission to really look at this stuff.'

HANSEN: NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam.

Jackie, thanks.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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