WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors are pursuing criminal investigations in the cases of two people who died in CIA custody, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
One of the cases involves an Iraqi man who died at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad in 2003, and the other involves the death of an Afghan who was being held at a secret CIA detention center in Afghanistan in 2002.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the probes were the only criminal investigations to result from a wide-ranging probe into CIA conduct that had been carried out by John Durham, an assistant U.S. attorney for Connecticut. Those cases included the destruction by a CIA official of videotapes of interrogations of terrorist suspects and the handling of a variety of so-called high-value suspects, three of whom were waterboarded and at least one of whom was threatened with a drill held to his head as he was questioned.
CIA Director Leon Panetta, on his last day in office before becoming secretary of defense, called the development a good one for the CIA.
"I welcome the news that the broader inquiries are behind us," he said. "We are now finally about to close this chapter of our agency's history."
Human rights advocates denounced the decision to drop all the investigations but two.
"For a period of several years, and with the approval of the Bush administration's most senior officials, the CIA operated an interrogation program that subjected prisoners to unimaginable cruelty and violated both international and domestic law," said Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The narrow investigation that Attorney General Holder announced today is not proportionate to the scale and scope of the wrongdoing."
Human Rights First was likewise disappointed. "Given what we know about the widespread, systematic practices of torture and official cruelty imposed on persons in U.S. custody," it said in a statement, "the Department of Justice should not limit its investigation to a mere two cases."
CIA and Justice Department officials would not specify which two deaths in custody were under investigation.
But sources familiar with the cases said one was that of an Iraqi man named Manadel al Jamadi in November 2003 at Abu Ghraib prison; his death became notorious after a photo emerged in 2004 of U.S. soldiers flashing thumbs up above his naked and battered corpse, which had been wrapped in ice to prevent his remains from decomposing.
The second death under investigation, according to the sources, was that of Gul Rahman, an Afghan detainee who died on Nov. 20, 2002, while in CIA custody in what was known as the Salt Pit, a now-defunct secret detention center at Kabul airport also sometimes called "The Dark Prison" by former captives.
A Guantanamo document in the file of a since transferred Kazak prisoner, obtained by WikiLeaks and provided to McClatchy and other news organizations, describes Gul Rahman as having commanded a mixed Uzbek-Afghan unit that fought on behalf of the Taliban.
The Associated Press, the first news organization to disclose the circumstances of Rahman's death, reported that he was shackled to a wall in the prison after interrogators sought to learn from him the whereabouts of another militant, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Rahman is the only detainee known to have died at a CIA-run prison. At the time of Jamadi's death, Abu Ghraib was under control of the U.S. military.
Whether to prosecute CIA officers and contractors for the treatment of suspects swept up in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington has been a contentious issue since Barack Obama became president.
Those who favor prosecution claim that harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and the physical abuse of detainees, constituted torture, which is prohibited by both U.S. and international law.
But advocates of not prosecuting said those who carried out the interrogations were acting under findings from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which determined in two controversial opinions that the practices were legal.
In his announcement, Holder said that from the beginning he had contemplated that the department "would not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance given by the Office of Legal Counsel" and that Durham had found that the vast majority of cases met that standard.
(Rosenberg, of The Miami Herald, reported from Miami, Landay from Washington.)
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