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U.S. military acknowledges Quran abuse

Josh White and Dan Eggen Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military released new details Friday about five confirmed cases of U.S. personnel mishandling the Quran at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison, acknowledging that soldiers and interrogators kicked the holy book, got copies wet, stood on a Quran during an interrogation and inadvertently sprayed urine on another copy.

Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, who completed the three-week inquiry this week into alleged mishandling of the Quran, confirmed five cases of intentional or unintentional mishandling of the holy book, all of which appear to be unrelated, from among 19 alleged incidents since the detention facility opened in January 2002.

In a news release from the U.S. Southern Command late Friday, Hood expanded on statements he made at a Pentagon news briefing last week, when he characterized the incidents as rare, isolated and largely inadvertent.

Officials said they have issued more than 1,600 Qurans at the facility, moved detainees thousands of times and looked through 25,000 documents in their investigation.

“Mishandling a Quran at Guantanamo Bay is a rare occurrence,” Hood said in the statement. “Mishandling of a Quran here is never condoned. When one considers the many thousands of times detainees have been moved and cells have been searched since detention operations first began here in January 2002, I think one can only conclude that respect for detainee religious beliefs was embedded in the culture of (the task force) from the start.”

Newsweek report sparked probe

Investigators specifically were looking into allegations that U.S. personnel had flushed a Quran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay. Newsweek reported in early May that such an allegation had been confirmed, setting off riots in Muslim nations, but then retracted the story. Hood’s inquiry determined that no such incident took place.

The probe did find, however, that rumors of such an event swirled around the facility in the summer of 2002 after a detainee dropped his Quran on the floor and other detainees blamed the mishandling on U.S. guards. The story, according to a U.S. Southern Command news release, changed as detainees passed it along, escalating to rumors that U.S. troops ripped pages out of the book, and then that they flushed it.

But the investigation’s results also are contrary to the recent claims of top Pentagon officials that there were no credible accounts of Quran mishandling. The first case, in February 2002, arose when a detainee complained that guards at Camp X-Ray kicked the Quran of a detainee in a neighboring cell. Though interrogators and guards noted the incident at the time, there was no further investigation.

In another case, in August 2003, two detainees complained to their guards that a number of Qurans were wet “because the night shift guards had thrown water balloons on the block.” No further details of the incident were provided, but Hood’s team found the complaints credible and found “no evidence that the incident, although clearly inappropriate, caused any type of disturbance on the block.”

Other confirmed reports included a two-word obscenity being written in the inside cover of a Quran, though investigators were unable to determine who wrote the phrase and concluded it was possible that the complaining detainee – who was conversant in English – may have defaced his own book. Another report, in July 2003, detailed an incident in which a contract interrogator stood on a detainee’s Quran during an interrogation. The interrogator was fired for a “pattern of unacceptable behavior, an inability to follow direct guidance and poor leadership,” according to the news release Friday.

The most recent, and perhaps most unusual, case of mishandling was documented on March 25, 2005, when a detainee complained to the guards that urine came through an air vent in his cell and “splashed on him and his Quran while he laid near the air vent.” According to Hood’s investigation, the guard who was responsible reported himself to his superiors and was reassigned to gate duty.

“The guard had left his observation area post and went outside to urinate,” according to a summary of the incident. “He urinated near an air vent and the wind blew his urine through the vent into the block. The Sergeant of the Guard responded and immediately relieved the guard. The SOG ensured the detainee received a fresh uniform and a new Quran.”

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Pentagon’s shifting explanations related to Quran mistreatment cast doubt on the latest findings.

“It’s clear the Department of Defense has had to backtrack on its previous statements that it was not aware of any such Quran allegations,” Romero said. “It raises serious doubts about whether the Pentagon has done a full and thorough investigation.”

The ACLU released documents obtained from the government last month showing that at least a dozen inmates complained to FBI agents about mishandling of the Quran; Romero said it is not clear how many of those accusations were investigated by the Hood inquiry.

Tom Wilner, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents 11 Kuwaiti nationals being held at Guantanamo Bay, said the number and persistence of reports of Quran mistreatment from detainees indicates a much broader problem than indicated by the Hood inquiry.

“It’s sort of amazing today that we define truth as only when the government confirms something happened,” Wilner said. “I think there is no question that, especially in the early days of Guantanamo, there was a persistent pattern of physical abuse and religious discrimination, including desecration of the Quran. … But it hasn’t been fully looked at.”

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