Military intelligence officials at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq ordered military police to keep several detainees hidden from the International Committee of the Red Cross, leaving a coded message on cell doors to indicate which detainees the visitors were not allowed to see or interview, a court hearing has been told.
Staff Sergeant Christopher Ward, a member of the 372nd Military Police Company who was in charge of the day shift at Abu Ghraib’s most secure cellblock, said that during at least three official visits last northern autumn and winter, he was ordered to steer the ICRC away from certain detainees whose cells were tagged with signs bearing the words “Article 134”. Some of them were kept in a part of the prison’s Tier 1A that was obscured by two separate doors.
“I didn’t understand it, and I can’t tell you what that meant,” Sergeant Ward testified on Wednesday, saying he had no idea what Article 134 was. Military prosecutors also could not say what the term meant. Sergeant Ward said military intelligence “directed it. MI put the signs on the door”.
The testimony at a preliminary court hearing for Private Lynndie England, 21 – a military policewoman charged with abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib last year – echoes findings of an army investigation that severely criticised officials there for keeping “ghost detainees”, those who were hidden from international humanitarian workers.
An army investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib by Major- General Antonio Taguba reported that some detainees were being kept secretly and strongly condemned the practice as a violation of international law.
A subsequent Army Inspector General’s report, issued to Congress last month, found no evidence that detainees were hidden from international officials or that there was any systemic problem related to such practices.
The Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has said he authorised keeping one soldier off the official rolls under unusual circumstances, but members of the Senate armed services committee have expressed concern that the practice was more widespread.
Sergeant Ward’s testimony came at a hearing to determine whether England will face up to 19 charges of abuse and violating army regulations at a court martial.
Three members of England’s military police unit spoke of her erratic work habits and propensity for breaking the rules, including unauthorised late-night visits to Tier 1, where her lover, Specialist Charles Graner, worked the night shift. Graner has also been charged with abuse of detainees.
During those visits, England allegedly abused prisoners and was pictured in digital photographs with detainees posed in sexually humiliating situations.
Specialist Matthew Bolinger, her supervisor at Abu Ghraib, told the hearing that England was late for work, left early and disobeyed orders, confining her to a life of “work, chow and church”.
England’s lawyers have argued that she was operating on orders from military intelligence officials who wanted the detainees broken down for interrogations.
Prosecutors have tried to portray her as a rogue soldier, in keeping with President George Bush’s statement that the abuse was the fault of a small group.