KABUL, Afghanistan – Days after a former CIA (search) contractor was charged in the death of an Afghan in U.S. custody, an regional official Saturday cast doubt on a defense lawyer's claim that the prisoner died of a heart attack.
David Passaro (search), a 38-year-old former Army special operations soldier, became the first American Thursday to face civilian charges over prisoner abuse in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Passaro faces four counts of assault and assault with a dangerous weapon — a flashlight — on Abdul Wali, who died at a U.S. base in the Afghan town of Asadabad on June 21, 2003. Wali was 28.
Passaro's defense has seized on a June 27, 2003, comment made to an Iranian radio station by Fazel Akbar, the governor of Kunar province where the base is located, as evidence that Wali died of a heart attack.
But the governor's spokesman said Saturday that Akbar had only suspected heart problems because U.S. officials insisted the man was not mistreated and after a cursory examination by Afghan officials of the corpse.
Spokesman Hyder Akbar, who is also the governor's son, said that his father's initial assessment was "just speculation."
Hyder Akbar said Wali turned himself in to the governor's office because he was suspected of involvement in rocket attacks on the American base at Asadabad, 120 miles east of the capital, Kabul.
Hyder Akbar, a fluent English speaker from studies in the United States, said he accompanied Wali to the base to act as an interpreter. But he said he walked out of the interrogation in disgust after Passaro began threatening the prisoner.
"There was only hearsay evidence, but he was treating Abdul Wali with such contempt it got me off the wrong way," Hyder Akbar said in a telephone interview from Asadabad. "He was huffing and puffing and playing the role of bad cop."
Hyder Akbar declined to say what the threats were and said he saw no abuse.
He said Afghan officials were informed three days later of the death and went to view the body. No autopsy was carried out to determine the exact cause of Wali's death.
"In retrospect, we realized we didn't see his back or his thighs, and that the room was dimly lit, just through the door," Hyder Akbar said. "We couldn't see any marks that could show extreme torture that could lead to death."
He said that U.S. officials including Passaro told the Afghans "that Abdul Wali was not beaten or abused in any way."
Wali's relatives said he had suffered from health problems and that he had passed out at times, Hyder Akbar said.
"As far as the heart attack is concerned, that was just speculation," he said.
Hyder Akbar, a student of Diablo Valley College (search), in Pleasant Hill, Calif., said he had spoken to U.S. federal prosecutors in Washington but didn't know if he would be called to testify in court.
Passaro has a detention hearing scheduled Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in Raleigh, N.C.
If convicted, Passaro faces up to 40 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
No civilians have been charged in connection with alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib (search) in Iraq. Seven soldiers were charged by the military.
The furor over detainee mistreatment there has drawn fresh attention to similar allegations in Afghanistan.
Military spokesman in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Tucker Mansager, declined to comment Saturday on the death of Abdul Wali. But he said the charges against his interrogator showed American resolve in rooting out mistreatment.
"That's good testimony to the fact that we are making sure that we treat all people with dignity and respect," Mansager said.
Two more prisoners died at Bagram, the main U.S. base north of Kabul, in December 2002. Both were ruled homicides after autopsies, but the military has yet to release any results of its criminal investigation.
The military says it has already begun making unspecified changes to its prison regime in Afghanistan as a result of an internal review begun last month. Findings are to be released by early July, though commanders say procedures used on prisoners will remain confidential.