ResourcesPress Release

New Study Finds Homicide, Mortar Attacks Leading Causes of Death for Detainees in US Custody

PHR Calls for Independent Inquiry into Fatalities and Access to Adequate Health Care for Detainees

For Immediate Release

Today the most comprehensive peer-reviewed study done so far of the causes of death for detainees in US custody reports that 112 detainees [105 in Iraq and 7 in Afghanistan] died between 2002 and 2005. "Deaths of Detainees in the Custody of U.S. Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2005," a product of a review of Department of Defense documents and press reports, finds the leading causes of detainee death were homicide (43) and enemy mortar attacks (36). The paper was published today by Medscape General Medicine (free registration required to read).

Based on this new data, PHR called today for an immediate independent inquiry into the causes of death of detainees in US custody and the protection, living conditions, and medical care that is being afforded to those now under US control. PHR believes that the cause of detainee deaths has not been adequately investigated, particularly the circumstances surrounding deaths due to homicide. In the case of deaths due to enemy mortar attacks, the US has a responsibility under the Geneva Conventions to ensure that prisoners under its control are not in danger of death or injury due to enemy attack, the group said.

"This study clearly suggests that the US Government is failing to fully meet its responsibility under US military law to adequately protect the health of detainees under its care. The large number of deaths from enemy mortar attacks and high number of homicides show that the US is not meeting the Geneva Conventions' standards on preventing detainee casualties from enemy attack and torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Further, independent investigation of these deaths is immediately required," said Dr. Scott A. Allen, the primary author of the paper, and a physician at the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Dr. Allen is Clinical Assistant Professor at the Brown University Medical School and is a Medicine as Profession Fellow at PHR. He has also served as a medical director and expert for the Federal Courts in domestic correctional facilities in the US.

Dr. Allen added: "Although many cases had autopsies it appears possible that some of the autopsies were performed without review of medical records and without good data about the immediate conditions of confinement leading up to the death.”

According to the study, at least eleven of the homicides involved blunt trauma or asphyxiation. At least three of the 43 homicide cases reported have resulted in murder charges–another three have resulted in charges of voluntary manslaughter. Of the 43 deaths of detainees in US custody due to homicide, 37 occurred in Iraq and six in Afghanistan. 22 of the Iraqi homicides were caused by gunshot injuries, and 15 of those gunshot deaths reportedly happened during riots and escape attempts.

"The Secretary of Defense Designate, Robert Gates, if confirmed, should authorize an independent investigation of these deaths as part of a new approach of transparency and accountability for US treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere," stated Leonard Rubenstein, Executive Director of PHR. "The White House and the Pentagon must ensure that the many unanswered questions about these deaths are finally answered conclusively."

Additionally, the study identified 20 deaths that were attributed to natural causes and nine were listed as having an unknown cause of death. Four deaths were ruled to be either accidental or natural. One cluster of eight deaths attributed to natural causes that occurred in Iraq in August 2003 raises urgent questions about the adequacy and availability of medical care, as well as whether conditions of confinement may have affected the mortality rate of detainees.

"One critical question raised by this report is whether medical personnel in the US military caring for detainees are receiving the direction and resources they need to effectively do their job," said Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis, MD (USA-Ret.), an advisor to PHR and former Commander of the Southeast Medical Command. "Congress must ensure that our military medical professionals are equipped and supported to assist detainees in a way that upholds our nation's strong tradition of humanely treating those we capture on the battlefield."

The other authors of the paper are Josiah D. Rich MD, MPH, Robert C. Bux, MD, Bassina Farbenblum, Matt Berns, and Leonard Rubenstein, JD.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

Media Contact

Kevin Short

Media Strategy, Senior Manager1.917.679.0110