WASHINGTON – Terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay (search) prison told U.S. interrogators as early as April 2002, just three months after the first detainees arrived, that military guards abused them and desecrated the Koran, declassified FBI records say.
"Their behavior is bad," one detainee is quoted as saying of his guards during an interrogation by an FBI special agent on July 22, 2002. "About five months ago the guards beat the detainees. They flushed a Koran in the toilet."
Lawrence Di Rita, chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), said Wednesday that U.S. military officials at Guantanamo Bay had recently found a separate record of the same allegation by the same detainee, and he was re-interviewed on May 14.
"He did not corroborate his own allegation," Di Rita said.
Asked why he felt certain that this detainee did not affirm his allegation out of fear of retaliation, Di Rita said, "It's a judgment call, and I trust the judgment of the commanders more than I trust the judgment of Al Qaeda."
The statements about guards disrespecting the Koran echo public allegations made many months later by some detainees and their lawyers after the prisoners' release from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The once-secret FBI documents show a consistency to the allegations and are the first indication that Justice and Defense department officials were aware in early 2002 that detainees were accusing their guards of mistreating the Koran.
One told an interrogator in March 2003 that guards had repeatedly mishandled the Koran. This detainee asked why the United States, as a supporter of freedom of religion, was using the Muslim holy book as a weapon.
Still another said in October 2002 that he and other detainees had been "beaten, spit upon and treated worse than a dog."
Separately on Wednesday, Amnesty International (search) urged the United States to shut down the prison, calling it "the gulag of our time."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the human rights group's complaints were "unsupported by the facts" and that allegations of mistreatment were being investigated.
In its annual report, Amnesty accused the United States of failing to live up to its responsibility to set the standard for human rights protections. Rather, the group said the United States has been the biggest disappointment "after evidence came to light that the U.S. administration had sanctioned interrogation techniques that violated the U.N. Convention against Torture."
Some 540 men are being held at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of links to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban government or the Al Qaeda terror network. Some have been jailed for more than three years without charge. The Defense Department argues that the detention prevents these enemy combatants from fighting against the United States.
Di Rita said the charges of deliberate Koran desecration by U.S. military personnel were "fantastic" and "not credible on their face" because U.S. commanders were careful not to inflame passions among the detainees.
"Commanders knew it was a very sensitive issue and they didn't need the trouble," the spokesman said.
Di Rita also said that the terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay had been trained to make such false claims.
Indeed, the FBI records cite at least one instance in which a detainee is said to have falsely claimed that a guard had dropped a Koran.
"In actuality the detainee dropped the Koran and then blamed the guard. Many other detainees reacted to this claim," the FBI document said, and that sparked an uprising "on or about 19-20 July 2002."
In an April 6, 2002, FBI interrogation, one of the detainees said guards had been "pushing them around and throwing their waste bucket at them in the cell, sometimes with waste still in the bucket, and kicking the Koran."
Another detainee stated that he had been beaten unconscious at Guantanamo Bay in the spring of 2002, a period in which U.S. interrogators were pressing hard for intelligence information they believed some of the detainees held on the planning, structure and tactics of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.
The newly released FBI records do not indicate whether the allegations were investigated or substantiated.
In response to a recent Newsweek story, later retracted, that U.S. officials had confirmed allegations of Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay, Pentagon officials have said repeatedly that they have turned up no credible, substantiated claims that U.S. military guards had deliberately treated the Muslim holy book with disrespect.
Di Rita said the Pentagon had not seen the new FBI documents until they were made public Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (search). The ACLU said it received them in response to a federal court order that directed the FBI and other agencies to comply with the organization's request under the Freedom of Information Act (search).
In many of the interrogations described in the FBI documents, military officers were present. Some were with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations; others were Navy and Army investigations personnel.
Large portions of the interrogation summaries were blacked out by FBI censors before being released to the ACLU.
The U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for the Guantanamo Bay detention center, responded to the Newsweek story by beginning a review of written logs searching for corroborated incidents of Koran mishandling. As of Wednesday, officials had not reported finding any.
In January 2003, the military issued a three-page written guideline for handling a detainee's Koran, including a stipulation that it should be handled "as if it were a fragile piece of delicate art," and that it not be placed in "offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet or dirty/wet areas."
ACLU officials said the newly declassified documents provide new evidence that U.S. authorities at Guantanamo Bay were mistreating symbols of the detainees' religious beliefs as a tactic to force them to talk.
"The United States government continues to turn a blind eye to mounting evidence of widespread abuse of detainees held in its custody," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "If we are to truly repair America's standing in the world, the Bush administration must hold accountable high-ranking officials who allow the continuing abuse and torture of detainees."