National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 28, 2004

German TV reports torture, death at U.S. base


“Spiegel TV Magazine,” an investigative news program on German television, reported May 16 that a 47-year-old Iraqi father of seven was tortured and beaten to death last January while detained at Al Asad, a U.S. military base located about 80 miles west of Baghdad.

It was the second of two recent reports alleging detainee torture at Al Asad. The remote air base has remained largely outside public scrutiny of the detainee scandal. Captured by Australian troops in April 2003, Al Asad has since become an established U.S. military complex, complete with Post Exchange and a detention facility.

According to “Spiegel TV,” Asad Abdul Kareem Abdul Jaleel, a Sunni tribal leader from the village of Al Dulab, was picked up by a U.S. patrol Jan. 4 under suspicion of belonging to Iraqi resistance and taken to Al Asad, where he died Jan. 9 after five days of imprisonment.

“Spiegel TV” reported that a U.S. Army death certificate signed by Capt. Luis Santiago states Jaleel died “in his sleep” of natural causes; but the German news program doubts the military’s assessment and said photos of the corpse taken by Asad Hasseeb, Jaleel’s cousin, show obvious signs of torture.

“There are bruises from beatings or other forms of violent impact on the back. Other lacerations on the upper body point to injuries, which can hardly be called ‘natural,’ ” said “Spiegel TV.”

Included in the 12-minute broadcast is an interview with Abid Hamed Abid, described as a former prisoner at Al Asad who said he saw how Jaleel died. Abid told “Spiegel TV” four U.S. soldiers participated in the torture of the Iraqi that apparently began shortly after his arrival to the detention facility at Al Asad.

“They kicked him a lot, cuffed his hands and feet. Two Americans then grabbed him. One held up his feet, while the other pulled down his head. They tossed him on his back and stepped on him. They danced on his belly and poured cold water over him. Then they left him alone for a couple of hours, but got back at him whenever they felt like it,” Abid said.

An Iraqi and a German pathologist, also interviewed on the program, said Jaleel’s body looked like it had been tortured.

“Spiegel TV” said U.S. troops handed over Jaleel’s body and death certificate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which routinely transports the dead in situations of conflict. The committee brought the corpse to the Forensic Institute in Baghdad where it was eventually located and reclaimed by Jaleel’s family.

“Spiegel TV Magazine” is a television derivative of Der Spiegel, a newsmagazine that is widely read in Europe. Assigned to Iraq in early May, television journalist Helmar Buechel said he decided to investigate Jaleel’s story after seeing photos of his corpse.

Even before they recovered Jaleel’s body, “the whole family knew the Americans killed this guy,” he said, in a phone interview with NCR.

According to Buechel, Jaleel’s cousin, Asad Hasseeb, took 11 photographs of the body “from many angles. He did it quite well, like an investigator.” These images, Buechel noted, were identical to a Polaroid photograph of the corpse taken by Quassim Raouf, the Iraqi pathologist at the Forensic Institute in Baghdad who independently archives all the bodies that come in with a U.S. death certificate.

“If at the medical institute I had not found supporting evidence, I wouldn’t have risked my life and the life of my crew for the story. But from what I was told I was very convinced it was worth it. The pathologist’s picture showed the same traces of torture that we were seeing in the family photos,” Buechel said.

The German news team claims that according to their research, Jaleel’s case “is not a rarity in occupied Iraq.” The U.S. military delivers about five bodies a week to the institute in Baghdad where Iraqi pathologists are “not allowed to do their own examinations” on corpses that have American death certificates, even if the stated cause of death is “obviously wrong,” reported “Spiegel TV.”

When asked, during the television broadcast, if he had seen any tortured corpses, Abdulatif Ali, an assistant at the institute, replied, “Not today. When they bring them in, we see certain things, but we are not allowed to talk about it. The doctor always tells us it’s none of our business. It’s a secret.”

But during off-camera interviews, employees at the institute were evidently not so reticent. They told “Spiegel TV” the established practice of Americans is to catalogue bodies from Abu Ghraib as victims of grenade attacks on the prison camp even when the corpses show obvious signs of torture. Employees also reported the forensic institute had received 26 bodies from Abu Ghraib earlier this month and only some showed signs of grenade attack.

A Defense Department spokesman was unable to answer questions concerning Jaleel’s case. He said the Department of Defense “is investigating a number of incidents of alleged abuses” and generally does “not discuss on-going investigations in order to protect the integrity of those investigations.”

The German news report is the second allegation of torture at Al Asad that has surfaced in the last two months. In March, Sgt. Camilo Mejia, a U.S. soldier seeking to get out of the military, reported he was ordered to keep “certain detainees” at Al Asad on sleep deprivation. Mejia’s platoon spent two weeks at the air base in early May 2003. In his application for conscientious objector status, he describes Al Asad’s detention operation as ad hoc, extrajudicial and cruel (NCR, May 21).

In September 2003, Mejia’s commanding officers recommended he receive an award based on his service at Al Asad. While engaged at the enemy prisoner of war/detainee site, Mejia, the officers noted, “eagerly assumed the responsibilities normally performed by military police and/or military intelligence and accomplished these with commendable results.”

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004

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