Military officials said yesterday that eight prisoner deaths in Afghanistan have been investigated since mid-2002, a higher number than previously reported. Human Rights Watch said...

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WASHINGTON — Military officials said yesterday that eight prisoner deaths in Afghanistan have been investigated since mid-2002, a higher number than previously reported. Human Rights Watch said slow-paced investigations had “spawned a culture of impunity” that may have fueled prisoner abuse in Iraq.

“It’s time for the United States to come clean about crimes committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia division director.

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Failure to prosecute incidents in Afghanistan has allowed abusive interrogation techniques to spread to Iraq, Adams said. “The U.S. government is dragging its feet on these investigations,” he said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. John Skinner, said commanders go to “enormous lengths to investigate any credible allegations of detainee abuse.” Many death investigations have determined detainees died due to natural causes or because of injuries suffered before their capture, he said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, reported two cases of detainee deaths it said were previously unacknowledged, one of which it said was investigated as a murder.

In response, the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command yesterday released a list of eight deaths that had been investigated.

Of those, five were previously acknowledged by military officials. The circumstances of two more seemed to match those described by Human Rights Watch as new. It was unclear whether the eighth has been reported previously.

Allegations of death, torture and abuse at U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to dozens of investigations, and, in some cases, criminal charges against U.S. military, CIA and contracted personnel.

Photographs of U.S. soldiers beating, tormenting and sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad surfaced earlier this year, drawing worldwide condemnation.

Newly reported deaths being investigated include:

• That of a “Mr. M. Sayari” on Aug. 28, 2002. This is the earliest acknowledged death of a prisoner in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. The case has been adjudicated by the Army, but no more details were available.

Human Rights Watch reported a previously undisclosed death for roughly the same time. The group said recently released Pentagon documents from an Army investigation that started in September 2002 stated that four soldiers allegedly murdered an Afghan “after detaining him for following their movements.”

The letter said the case was apparently closed and unspecified action taken against the soldiers, who included one officer and three enlisted personnel.

• An unidentified person who died while in the custody of U.S. soldiers in Wazi village, Afghanistan, in January 2003. The investigation is continuing. No more details were provided.

• That of a prisoner in September 2004 at Salerno Fire Base, near Khost. “To date no signs of abuse or trauma and awaiting final autopsy,” the Criminal Investigation Division’s statement said.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, identified the man as Sher Mohammed Khan and said he died of a heart attack.

Human Rights Watch said Khan died Sept. 25 after he was arrested during a raid on his family’s home near Khost. His brother was fatally shot by U.S. forces during the raid.

Khan’s family told Afghan investigators his body had bruises when they retrieved it from the base, Human Rights Watch said.

Khost Gov. Merajuddin Patan said yesterday that U.S. officers had informed him of a man dying in their custody around that time of a heart attack.

Of the other five deaths, rights groups have been particularly critical of the pace of a criminal investigation into how two Afghans died at the main U.S. base at Bagram, north of the capital, in December 2002.

The Army said in October that up to 28 U.S. soldiers faced possible criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter and maiming, in those deaths, both of which were ruled homicides.

The group also called for the release of a review of U.S. holding facilities at bases across Afghanistan.

Material from Reuters is included in this report.