BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. forces beat three Iraqis working for Reuters and subjected them to sexual and religious taunts and humiliation during their detention last January in a military camp near Falluja, the three said Tuesday.
The three first told Reuters of the ordeal after their release but only decided to make it public when the U.S. military said there was no evidence they had been abused, and following the exposure of similar mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
An Iraqi journalist working for U.S. network NBC, who was arrested with the Reuters staff, also said he had been beaten and mistreated, NBC said Tuesday.
Two of the three Reuters staff said they had been forced to insert a finger into their anus and then lick it, and were forced to put shoes in their mouths, particularly humiliating in Arab culture.
All three said they were forced to make demeaning gestures as soldiers laughed, taunted them and took photographs. They said they did not want to give details publicly earlier because of the degrading nature of the abuse.
The soldiers told them they would be taken to the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, deprived them of sleep, placed bags over their heads, kicked and hit them and forced them to remain in stress positions for long periods.
The U.S. military, in a report issued before the Abu Ghraib abuse became public, said there was no evidence the Reuters staff had been tortured or abused.
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of ground forces in Iraq, said in a letter received by Reuters Monday but dated March 5 that he was confident the investigation had been “thorough and objective” and its findings were sound.
The Pentagon has yet to respond to a request by Reuters Global Managing Editor David Schlesinger to review the military’s findings about the incident in light of the scandal over the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Asked for comment Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said only: “There are a number of lines of inquiry under way with respect to prison operations in Iraq. If during the course of any inquiry, the commander believes it is appropriate to review a specific aspect of detention, he has the authority to do so.”
The abuse happened at Forward Operating Base Volturno, near Falluja, the Reuters staff said. They were detained on January 2 while covering the aftermath of the shooting down of a U.S. helicopter near Falluja and held for three days, first at Volturno and then at Forward Operating Base St Mere.
The three — Baghdad-based cameraman Salem Ureibi, Falluja-based freelance television journalist Ahmad Mohammad Hussein al-Badrani and driver Sattar Jabar al-Badrani — were released without charge on Jan. 5.
“When I saw the Abu Ghraib photographs, I wept,” Ureibi said Tuesday. “I saw they had suffered like we had.”
Ureibi, who understands English better than the other two detainees, said soldiers told him they wanted to have sex with him, and he was afraid he would be raped.
NBC, whose stringer Ali Muhammed Hussein Ali al-Badrani was detained along with the Reuters staff, said he reported that a hood was placed over his head for hours, and that he was forced to perform physically debilitating exercises, prevented from sleeping and struck and kicked several times.
“Despite repeated requests, we have yet to receive the results of the army investigation,” NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley said.
Schlesinger sent a letter to Sanchez on January 9 demanding an investigation into the treatment of the three Iraqis.
The U.S. army said it was investigating and requested further information. Reuters provided transcripts of initial interviews with the three following their release, and offered to make them available for interview by investigators.
A summary of the investigation by the 82nd Airborne Division, dated January 28 and provided to Reuters, said “no specific incidents of abuse were found.” It said soldiers responsible for the detainees were interviewed under oath and “none admit or report knowledge of physical abuse or torture.”
“The detainees were purposefully and carefully put under stress, to include sleep deprivation, in order to facilitate interrogation; they were not tortured,” it said. The version received Monday used the phrase “sleep management” instead.
The U.S. military never interviewed the three for its investigation.
On February 3 Schlesinger wrote to Lawrence Di Rita, special assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, saying the investigation was “woefully inadequate” and should be reopened.
“The military’s conclusion of its investigation without even interviewing the alleged victims, along with other inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the report, speaks volumes about the seriousness with which the U.S. government is taking this issue,” he wrote.
The U.S. military faced international outrage this month after photographs surfaced showing U.S. soldiers humiliating and abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad.
An investigation by Major General Antonio Taguba found that “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees” in Abu Ghraib.
Seven U.S. soldiers have been charged over the Abu Ghraib abuse and the first court martial is set for Wednesday.
U.S. officials say the abuse was carried out by a small number of soldiers and that all allegations of abuse are promptly and thoroughly investigated.