RALEIGH, N.C. – The first American civilian to be charged with mistreating a detainee during the wars prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks was sentenced Tuesday to nearly 8 1/2 years in prison for beating a man in Afghanistan who later died.
Former CIA contract employee David Passaro, 40, was accused of hitting Afghan detainee Abdul Wali with a flashlight and kicking him in the groin during a two-day interrogation at a remote military base in July 2003. Wali died within 48 hours of the interrogation, after complaining of abdominal pain and an inability to urinate.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle has said that the absence of an autopsy probably kept Passaro from being charged with murder.
"Passaro's conduct was an affront to all of our men and women serving and fighting to spread freedom and the rule of law," said U.S. Attorney George Holding.
Observers said Tuesday that while several cases of such misconduct have been given to prosecutors for review, they believe Passaro remains the only civilian to face charges.
"From our perspective, his prosecution and his sentence were definitely a positive development in the saga of detainee abuse, but that it's very much a first step," Priti Patel, an attorney with New York-based Human Rights First.
Passaro was found guilty last year of felony assault and could have gotten 11 1/2 years in prison. He received eight years and four months behind bars, and will also be subject to three years of supervised release.
Defense attorney Joe Gilbert argued that his client should be given a lighter sentence because of his military service and because the death happened in a hostile nation during wartime.
"He was the lowest guy on the totem pole," Gilbert said. "He went in there to do his job."
Prosecutors said Wali, an Afghan farmer, came forward after learning he had been implicated in rocket attacks on a military base in Afghanistan.
The local governor, Said Akbar, wrote to the judge last week, saying Wali's death had become a tool for terrorist recruiting and was "a huge setback for Afghanistan's national reconciliation efforts."
Passaro told the judge that he was only trying to do his job well but that he regretted how he had treated Wali.
"He is a human being," Passaro said. "I failed him. If I could go back and change things, it would have never happened. I wish I had never gone in to talk to him."
Parraro lived in Lillington, N.C., before going overseas.
At the trial, prosecutors argued Passaro used several harsh techniques to pressure Wali about the rocket attacks during questioning in a dark, hot, mud-walled cell. Wali repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Several witnesses testified they saw Passaro beat Wali with a metal flashlight and his fists. Two interrogation sessions ended with Passaro kicking Wali in the groin, once with enough force to lift the prisoner off the ground.
Asked about Passaro's sentencing, officials at the CIA referred to Director Michael Hayden's statement from August, when Passaro was found guilty.
"I think it is very important for all of us to bear in mind that Passaro's actions were unlawful, reprehensible, and neither authorized nor condoned by the agency," Hayden said then.