June 8, 2004

Forced Nudity of Iraqi Prisoners Is Seen as a Pervasive Pattern, Not Isolated Incidents


In the weeks since photographs of naked detainees set off the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, military officials have portrayed the sexual humiliation captured in the images as the isolated acts of a rogue night shift.

But forced nudity of prisoners was pervasive in the military intelligence unit of Abu Ghraib, so much so that soldiers later said they had not seen "the whole nudity thing," as one captain called it, as abusive or out of the ordinary.

While there have been reports of forced nakedness at detention facilities in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the practice was apparently far more aggressive at Abu Ghraib, according to interviews, reports from human rights groups and sworn statements from detainees and soldiers. The detainees said leaving prisoners naked started as far back as last July, three months before the seven soldiers now charged and their military police company arrived at the prison. It bred a culture, some soldiers say, where the abuse captured on film could happen.

Detainees were paraded naked past other prisoners and guards; some were ordered to do jumping jacks and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in the nude, according to a several witnesses. Also, a father and his grown son were stripped, then forced to stand and stare at each other. The International Committee of the Red Cross, visiting in October, found prisoners left naked in their cells for days, modestly trying to shield themselves behind cardboard from meals-ready-to-eat boxes.

It is not clear how the practice emerged and, if it was official policy, exactly who authorized it. Col. Thomas M. Pappas, the military intelligence officer in charge of interrogations at the prison, told Army investigators that detainees might be stripped and shackled for questioning, but not without "good reason." When Red Cross monitors expressed alarm about prisoners being left in their cells or forced to move about naked, they said military intelligence officials "confirmed that it was part of the military intelligence process."

"It was not uncommon to see people without clothing," Capt. Donald J. Reese, the warden of the tier where the worst abuses occurred, told investigators in a sworn statement in January. "I only saw males. I was told the `whole nudity thing' was an interrogation procedure used by military intelligence, and never thought much of it."

An analyst from the 205th Military Intelligence Battalion, who asked not to be identified for fear of being punished for speaking out, said: "If you walked down through the wing of the prison where they were being held, they would have them strip down naked. Sometimes they would stand on boxes and would hold their arms out. That happened almost every night — having them naked. I wouldn't say it's abuse. It's definitely degrading to them."

Soldiers said at least one civilian interrogator, Steven Stefanowicz, had been so alarmed by the use of nudity that he reported a military intelligence interrogator after she made a detainee walk naked down a cellblock to humiliate him. His lawyer said Mr. Stefanowicz, who an Army report said might have been "directly or indirectly" responsible for abuses, had not thought stripping detainees was an appropriate interrogation technique, and had worried that doing so would incite more unrest at a time when guards were fending off rioters with live bullets.

Nudity is considered particularly shameful in Muslim culture, a violation of religious principles. While nudity as a disciplinary or coercive tool may be especially objectionable to Muslims, they are hardly the only victims of the practice. Soldiers in Nazi Germany paraded naked prisoners in daylight, and human rights groups have documented the use of nudity during conflicts in Egypt, Chile and Turkey, and in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Central Intelligence Agency training manuals from the 1960's and 1980's taught the stripping of prisoners as an interrogation tool. Nudity and sexual humiliation have also been reported in American prisons where a number of guards at Abu Ghraib worked in their civilian lives.

Complaints about sexual humiliation have also emerged in Afghanistan. Seven Afghan men who had been held at the main detention center in Bagram, where the deaths of two detainees and accusations of abuse are now under investigation, said in recent interviews that during various periods from December 2002 to April 2004, they had been subjected to repeated rectal exams, and forced to change clothes, shower and go to the bathroom in front of female soldiers.

"I'm 50 years old, and no one has ever taken my clothes," said Abdullah Khan Sahak, who was released from American custody on April 19 and complained that he was photographed nude in Afghanistan. "It was a very hard moment for me. It was death for me."

Zakim Shah, a 20-year-old farmer, and Parkhudin, a 26-year-old farmer and former soldier who, like many Afghans, has only one name, said female soldiers had watched groups of male prisoners take showers at Bagram and undergo rectal exams.

"We don't know if it's medical or if they were very proud of themselves," Mr. Shah said. "But if it was medical, why were they taking our clothes off in front of the women? We are Afghans, not Americans."

On two or three occasions, the two men said, the women commented to one another about the size of prisoners' penises. "They were laughing a lot," Parkhudin said, adding that the women taunted prisoners during showers, saying, "You're my dog."

Three other prisoners reported being questioned while naked at an American firebase in the city of Gardez in 2003. And at Camp Rhino, John Walker Lindh, the American now serving a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban, was stripped and bound with duct tape to a stretcher for two days, according to the statement of fact in his plea-bargain agreement.

At Guantánamo Bay, where some prisoners from Afghanistan were taken, a few British detainees said forced nudity had occurred. One of them, Tarek Dergoul, said after his release that some detainees had been stripped of their clothing, which would then be returned piece by piece in exchange for good behavior.

But Lt. Col. Leon H. Sumpter, a spokesman for the military joint task force that runs the detention center, said in a recent interview that nudity had never occurred in connection with interrogation or discipline and had not been approved.

A military official who served at Guantánamo said that after a wave of suicide attempts by prisoners in late 2002 and early 2003, the military police guards did take away clothing from some detainees who were considered suicide risks, out of concern that they might rip up their garments to make nooses.

In its visits to detention centers and prisons in Iraq, the Red Cross singled out the military intelligence section at Abu Ghraib for using public nudity in a "systematic" pattern of maltreatment. By contrast, the committee said it had heard no complaints of "physical ill treatment" at Camp Bucca, another large detention center.

A list of interrogation techniques posted at Abu Ghraib in September, indicating which were acceptable and which needed special authorization, makes no mention of leaving detainees naked. A senior military officer said, "There was no interrogation authority that authorized the removal of all clothing from a detainee."

But detainees who made sworn statements after the prison abuse scandal broke all mentioned having been left naked, some for days. The practice goes back at least as far as July 10, when, according to his statement, a detainee named Amjed Isail Waleed was left unclothed in a dark room for five days. Another detainee, Ameen Saeed al-Sheik, said he was stripped on Oct. 7, a week before the arrival of the 372nd Military Police Company, the unit where soldiers are now charged with abuse.

By Oct. 20, forced nudity was such accepted practice that an incident report written by two of the soldiers now charged said an inmate in the cell where prisoners were held for interrogation had been ordered "stripped in his cell for six (6) days" for apparently whittling a toothbrush into what a soldier believed was a knife.

In late October, Red Cross monitors were so alarmed by the number of nude detainees that they halted their visit and demanded an immediate explanation.

"The military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation explained that this practice was `part of the process,' " the Red Cross wrote in a report in February.

In November, Specialist Luciana Spencer of the 66th Military Intelligence Group ordered a detainee stripped and handcuffed behind his back during his interrogation, then paraded him outdoors in the cold past other detainees to his cell.

"I remember we said, `Do you really have to walk him out naked?' " said the intelligence analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And they said, `Yeah, yeah, we have to embarrass him.' "

Mr. Stefanowicz reported the incident, and Specialist Spencer was moved out of the interrogation unit. Sometime around December, the nudity seemed to stop, according to several soldiers. Captain Reese, the tier warden, credited the Red Cross.

"They were concerned with the amount of nudity, and the area was cold and damp," he said in his statement to investigators on Jan. 18. "The detainees did not have appropriate clothing and bedding. The second visit occurred two weeks ago, and things were much better. The nudity has stopped, and they seemed happy with what they saw."