The International Committee of the Red Cross documented what it called credible information about U.S. personnel disrespecting or mishandling Korans at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and pointed it out to the Pentagon in confidential reports during 2002 and early 2003, an ICRC spokesman said Wednesday.
Representatives of the ICRC, who have played a key role in investigating abuse allegations at the facility in Cuba and other U.S. military prisons, never witnessed such incidents firsthand during on-site visits, said Simon Schorno, an ICRC spokesman in Washington.
But ICRC delegates, who have been granted access to the secretive camp since January 2002, gathered and corroborated enough similar, independent reports from detainees to raise the issue multiple times with Guantanamo commanders and with Pentagon officials, Schorno said in an interview Wednesday.
Following the ICRC’s reports, the Defense Department command in Guantanamo issued almost three pages of detailed, written guidelines for treatment of Korans. Schorno said ICRC representatives did not receive any other complaints or document similar incidents following the issuance of the guidelines on Jan. 19, 2003.
The issue of how Korans are handled by American personnel guarding Muslim detainees moved into the spotlight after protests in Muslim nations, including deadly riots in Afghanistan, that followed a now-retracted report in Newsweek magazine. That story said U.S. investigators had confirmed that interrogators had flushed a Koran down a toilet.
The Koran is Islam’s holiest book, and mistreating it is seen as an offense against God.
Following the firestorm over the report and the riots, the ICRC declined Wednesday to discuss what kind of alleged incidents were involved, how many there were or how often it reported them to American officials prior to the release of the 2003 Koran guidelines.
“We don’t want to comment specifically on specific instances of desecration, only on the general level of how the Koran was disrespected,” Schorno said.
Schorno did say, however, that there were “multiple” instances involved and that the ICRC made confidential reports about such incidents “multiple” times to Guantanamo and Pentagon officials.
In addition to the retracted Newsweek story, senior Bush administration officials have repeatedly downplayed other reports regarding alleged abuses of the Koran at Guantanamo, largely dismissing them because they came from current or former detainees.
Pentagon confirms reports
Asked about the ICRC’s confidential reports Wednesday night, Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed their existence but sought to downplay the seriousness of their content. He said they were forwarded “on rare occasions” and called them “detainee allegations which they [the ICRC] could not corroborate.”
But that is not how Schorno, the ICRC spokesman, portrayed the reports.
“All information we received were corroborated allegations,” he said, adding, “We certainly corroborated mentions of the events by detainees themselves.”
`Not just one person’
Schorno also said: “Obviously, it is not just one person telling us something happened and we just fire up. We take it very seriously, and very carefully, and document everything in our confidential reports.”
It was not clear whether the ICRC’s corroboration went beyond statements made independently by detainees.
The organization has said that it insists on speaking “in total privacy to each and every detainee held” when its delegates and translators visit military detention facilities.
Still, Whitman said there was nothing in the ICRC reports that approximated the information published in the story retracted by Newsweek.
“The representations that were made to the United States military at Guantanamo by the ICRC are consistent with the types of things we have found in various [U.S. military] log entries about handling Korans, such as the accidental dropping of a Koran,” he said.
the military’s sensitivity about Muslim religious issues, but they did not note that the ICRC had confidentially reported specific concerns before the guidelines were issued.
The procedures outlined in the memorandum, which is entitled “Inspecting/Handling Detainee Korans Standard Operating Procedure,” are exacting. Among other things, they mandate that chaplains or Muslim interpreters should inspect all Korans, and that military police should not touch the holy books.
The guidelines also specify that Korans should not be “placed in offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet, or dirty/wet areas,” according to a copy.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan suggested Tuesday that the guidelines should be broadly reported in the wake of the retracted Newsweek story.
“The military put in place policies and procedures to make sure that the Koran was handled, or is handled, with the utmost care and respect,” he said.
U.S. credited for response
The ICRC gave U.S. officials credit for taking corrective action at Guantanamo by issuing the guidelines, with Schorno saying Wednesday, “We brought it up to the attention of the authorities, and it was followed through.”
He also said, “The memo doesn’t mention the ICRC, but we know that our comments are taken seriously.”
Still, Schorno did not say the guidelines were issued specifically in response to the ICRC’s reports. Schorno’s remarks Wednesday represented a departure from the ICRC’s customary policy of confidentiality with the governments it deals with in an effort to maintain their trust and the organization’s neutrality.
A senior State Department official, speaking only on the condition that he not be named, said Wednesday the issuance of the guidelines followed the ICRC’s reports and that they were “a credit to the fact that we investigate and correct practices and problems.”
Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman, said he was not aware of “any specific precipitating event that caused the command to codify those in a written policy.”
Whitman also said, “The ICRC works very closely with us to help us identify concerns with respect to detainees on a variety of issues, to include religious issues. But I can’t make any direct correlation there” between ICRC concerns on the Koran and the issuance of the 2003 guidelines.