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Did the Defense Department Stop Reporting Deaths of Detainees in U.S. Custody?

Dr. Steven Miles, a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and faculty member of its Center for Bioethics, for years tried to track the deaths of “war on terror” detainees being held in U.S. custody. The author of the book “Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and America’s War on Terror,” published in 2006 by Random House, has been monitoring the role physicians and psychologists have played in government-sponsored interrogations, observing that they were often there to serve the interrogators rather than the subjects.

In the process, he came across a curious fact. About three years ago, he says, the “entire prisoner death reporting system was turned off in Afghanistan.” And in Iraq, it was “turned off” at the beginning of 2008.

Before that time, says Miles, who’s on the board of the Center for Victims of Torture, the Department of Defense issued press releases about deaths of detainees in its custody. Miles was tracking those deaths and the role of physicians for his book, which was recently updated and republished as Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors by the University of California Press. (The Pentagon never reported the deaths of detainees subjected to “extraordinary rendition,” he says — that is, those sent to other countries for interrogation, and sometimes to be tortured.) But the Pentagon did, at least, report some deaths of the prisoners it acknowledged it had in its custody.

Then “they just stopped reporting it,” says Miles. The press releases stopped. **


It couldn’t be that no one died, Miles added, because “you have a certain expected death rate based on the size of the population. I’ve been able to trace all public death reports and can show when they turned them off.”

According to a draft paper he’s written, now being prepared for publication in the American Journal of Bioethics:

In May 2004, shortly after media published photographs of lethal abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, DoD disclosed 22 prisoner deaths; of which 12 (54%) were attributed to natural causes. DOD did not disclose another 67 deaths that occurred during that same period. Only 13 (15%) of the total 89 deaths were due to natural causes. By the end of 2008, 93 of 165 known decedents (56%) are unnamed. Death certificates are available for 37 (22%). Homicides and shelling of prisons are the leading causes of death. DoD has completely suppressed prisoner death reports from Afghanistan since 2004 and adopted a similar policy for Iraq in 2008.

The New York Times also reported back in 2004 that the Defense Department had provided incomplete or inaccurate information about deaths of prisoners in its custody.

I’ve asked several different spokesmen at the Department of Defense over the last few days to respond to this charge, to explain its policy for reporting detainee deaths, and to explain if that policy has changed since 2003. So far, I have received no response. ****

But Devon Chaffee, Advocacy Counsel at Human Rights First, which reported in 2006 on about 100 deaths in U.S. custody since 2002 that it was able to learn about, was not surprised.

“Our report found that commanders failed to report deaths in custody. Sometimes they reported them days or weeks later. But there clearly was a reporting problem. Some were simply not reported at all,” she added, although Army regulations require that any deaths in U.S. custody be reported within 24 hours.

The report issued by Human Rights First, called Command’s Responsibility, found that from August 2002 until the release of the report in February 2006, nearly 100 detainees had died “while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global ‘war on terror.’” Although the military had classified 34 of those cases as suspected or confirmed homicides, Human Rights First “identified another 11 in which the facts suggest death as a result of physical abuse or harsh conditions of detention. In close to half the deaths Human Rights First surveyed, the cause of death remains officially undetermined or unannounced. Overall, eight people in U.S. custody were tortured to death.”

In an ordinary war, the deaths of detainees would have to be reported publicly pursuant to the Geneva Conventions. But because President Bush early on declared that detainees in the “war on terror” are not technically “Prisoners of War” entitled to the protections the Geneva Conventions affords them, the U.S. military was apparently able to get around that reporting requirement.

Although at least some officials in the Obama administration have declared the “war on terror” over, the Obama DOD appears not to have resumed regular reporting on the deaths of prisoners in custody, says Miles. “It’s still shut down,” says Miles of the reporting system. “Obama hasn’t opened it up. It’s just mysterious to me.”

In the meantime, human rights organizations such as Human Rights First and others haven’t had the resources to keep their report of detainee deaths up-to-date, says Chafee.

I’ll report more as soon as I hear back from the Department of Defense about what their reporting policy is, whether it’s changed, and why human rights organizations have counted more deaths in custody than the government has acknowledged.

*You can follow TWI on Twitter and Facebook. *

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