National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

National Guardsman recounts detainee abuse


A Catholic combat veteran who spent five months in Iraq and now wants out of the military has recently revealed incidents of detainee abuse that occurred last May at a temporary detention facility in western Iraq.

In his application for conscientious objector status, which was completed in mid-March, Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia describes how his platoon, assigned to guard Iraqi prisoners at the Al Assad Air Base, was instructed by “three mysterious interrogators” to keep “certain detainees” awake for 24 to 48 hours. The task required some “pretty tough measures” like constantly yelling at the prisoners, all of whom were hooded, and making them move their arms up and down or alternately sit and stand for several minutes at a time. “When these techniques failed,” Mejia writes, “we would bang on the wall with a sledgehammer or load a 9mm pistol next to their ear.

“The way we treated these men was hard, even for the soldiers, especially after realizing that many of these combatants were no more than shepherds,” he said.

Although disturbing, Mejia’s account does not surprise human rights monitors who say the American military’s abuse of Iraqi detainees has become widespread and systemic.

Deployed to Iraq in May 2003, Mejia, who is in the Florida National Guard, said his platoon was ill-prepared for their two-week mission at Al Assad. The sprawling air base 130 miles west of Baghdad has since become a major U.S. military complex. But last spring, Mejia said, Al Assad housed a small number of U.S. troops and between 16 and 30 Iraqi detainees who were kept in airport hangars. In his conscientious objector application, he describes a detention operation that was ad hoc and extrajudicial, staffed by infantrymen who were not “trained on how to deal with detainees.”

He reports that soldiers were instructed not to call Al Assad a prisoner of war camp because the facility did not comply with the regulations of the Geneva Conventions. Called a detainee camp instead, the base became “a quick stop” where detainees were interrogated and then categorized as combatants or noncombatants.

“At one point,” he writes, “our platoon leader thought of reporting the site to the International Red Cross because he thought it was in clear violation of the Geneva Convention rules which guaranteed war prisoners certain rights we could not afford at our site. But the matter did not go anywhere because our platoon sergeant told the platoon leader his effort would not change a thing, other than to end his military career.”

According to Mejia, “three mysterious men” oversaw the interrogation process, determining who was to be released and who merited sleep deprivation. During a phone interview with NCR, Mejia said he had no idea who the anonymous interrogators were.

“They wore civilian clothes. They gave fictitious names. They were, what we call in the military, ‘spooks.’ Nobody knew where they came from,” he said, adding that soldiers assumed the interrogators were at Al Assad under the auspices of the military.

For Mejia, the mission at Al Assad was an impossibly hard assignment. Some of the detainees slated for sleep deprivation had “already been up for several days,” he said. He assumed that Iraqis were categorized as combatants based on the circumstances of their arrest but he thought the sorting process too ambiguous and cruel and felt more questions needed to be asked.

“These men weren’t picked up for setting off [improvised explosive devices],” he said and later added, “Even if they were combatants, they were human beings. There should be other ways to treat them.”

Mejia was assigned to Al Assad during the final days of last spring’s war. It is not clear whether the interrogation tactics he described were done only in the heat of battle or if they continue today. Mejia said he does not know if Al Assad still has a detention facility.

John Conroy, journalist and author of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, said sleep deprivation is torture and therefore not permissible in the chaos of war or otherwise. “The U.S. signed the U.N. resolution against torture,” he said. Conroy said “the revolver business” is also torture if it simulates a mock execution, which he described as one of the “worst forms of torture” because of its long-lasting psychological effects.

Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Pamela Hart is unaware of allegations against Al Assad but she said, “The Department of Defense was investigating all the incidents that happened and we’re doing the best we can to improve training systems and procedures. We want to ensure that these situations don’t occur in the future.”

The U.S. military has 10 major detention facilities scattered throughout Iraq, of which Abu Ghraib prison is the largest. Additionally, there are a number of temporary detention facilities, many located on military bases, that are used for initial and secondary interrogations. According to Human Rights Watch, “security detainees” can be held at these sites for up to a month without access to relatives or counsel.

The Coalition Provisional Authority reports that as of this month, 38,494 Iraqis have been detained since the war began. A total of 7,749 are currently imprisoned. The Human Rights Organization of Iraq estimates that upwards of 18,000 Iraqis remain in detention.

For Mejia, the mission at Al Assad was just one of many reasons why he decided to get out of a war that he considers to be illegal as well as immoral. On March 15, after five months of combat and six months AWOL, he publicly declared himself a conscientious objector, making him the first Iraqi war veteran to do so.

The Nicaraguan-born Mejia, who is a legal resident of the United States, attended Catholic high schools while growing up in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. “I wasn’t very religious,” he said, “until I went to war. There I lost faith in everything but God.” While in Iraq, he began praying a lot, reading the Bible and attending Mass whenever possible. Mejia said his opposition to war was “not something that simply happened because I was a Catholic” but was “more of a process, a realization that took place in stages.” In his application for conscientious objector status, he cites several Catholic documents, including the Peace Pastoral and a 1971 bishop’s statement on conscientious objection, as religious justification for his decision to leave the military.

Charged with desertion, he is scheduled to be tried May 19 at Fort Stewart, Ga. He faces a maximum of one year in prison and a bad conduct discharge.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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