On June 3, 2003, two months after Pfc. Jessica Lynch was taken prisoner in Iraq, a suspect in the attack on her convoy, Nagem Sadoon Hatab, 52, was detained by US forces. He was taken to a detention facility near Nasiriyah, where he was beaten and strangled to death. Two Marines, Sgt. Gary Pittman, 41, and Maj. Clarke Paulus, 37, eventually faced criminal charges at highly publicized courts-martial in Camp Pendleton, California, in 2004.
It seemed like an easy case to prosecute–complete with witnesses to the brutal beatings. Ultimately, though, the most serious charges were dropped. In September 2004 Pittman was convicted of dereliction of duty and assault, sentenced to sixty days of hard labor and reduced in rank; two months later Paulus was found guilty of dereliction of duty and maltreatment and dismissed from the Marines.
Interviews with people involved in the courts-martial, and military documents recently obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act, shed some light on the proceedings. Pathologist Lieut. Col. Kathleen Ingwersen ruled Hatab’s death a homicide and placed blood, urine and tissue samples in a cooler to be shipped back to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Forensic Toxicology Laboratory in Washington. But the cooler got left on a tarmac in 100-plus-degree heat, explains Marine Col. William Gallo, an assistant US attorney in San Diego, who acted as an investigating officer from December 2003 to February 2004.
“The cooler exploded,” he says.
Then Hatab’s fractured hyoid bone, a key piece of evidence, was shipped to Landstuhl, Germany, and his rib cage was sent to Washington. Or maybe it was the other way around, says Hina Shamsi, a senior counsel with Human Rights First, an advocacy organization based in New York and Washington, and co-author of an upcoming report that examines the cases of Hatab and close to 100 other detainees who have died in US custody in the “war on terror.” In the end, the evidence was irrevocably damaged.
“You send one body part to one country and another to another country, and of course you can’t prosecute,” says Deborah Pearlstein, director of Human Rights First’s US Law and Security Program and co-author of the upcoming report on detainees who died. “The evidence is destroyed through what looks like incompetence.”
It’s not just the Hatab investigation that was botched, says Pearlstein. There has been a pattern of disregard for the niceties of evidence collection, storage and processing–as well as the handling of witnesses–in dozens of cases in which detainees have died in US custody. And those are just the on-the-ground investigations undertaken by the military in the wake of detainee deaths or allegations of torture and mistreatment.
There have also been twelve large-scale internal military investigations, including the much-publicized reports of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba on the Army and Maj. Gen. George Fay and Lieut. Gen. Anthony Jones on military intelligence. The reports, which include testimony from hundreds of military personnel and run into thousands of pages, were prompted by public outcry and Congressional inquiries into the abuse of detainees. And yet the reports have been inadequate, flawed and, in many cases, overly protective of the military personnel they purport to investigate, say human rights activists and legal experts.