8-11-2011By Melina Milazzo
Pennoyer Fellow, Law and Security Program
Upon the early release of Charles Graner, the so-called American “ringleader” of the Abu Ghraib detainee abuse scandal, Iraqis are reportedly outraged. Graner, one of a handful of U.S. soldiers convicted for sexually humiliating Iraqis and taking photos of the sadistic acts while a guard at the U.S. prison, was released this past Sunday for good behavior after serving six-and-a-half years of his 10 year sentence.
Of the soldiers charged in the scandal, Graner served the longest sentence.
For Iraqis, Graner’s lax sentencing and early release symbolizes an American style of injustice that delivers little to no accountability for the wanton abuse and violence against Iraqis at the hands of U.S. troops, contractors, and other American personnel. And, they have a point.
While Graner’s criminal involvement with the Abu Ghraib scandal should not be minimized, the truth is that Graner and the other low-level soldiers held accountable were simply the underlings to a broader, systematic U.S. policy of abuse and official cruelty. Indeed, the Senate Armed Services Committee found:
“The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of ‘a few bad apples’ acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.”
Yet to date, no commander or senior official has been held responsible for the widespread abuses that have occurred at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, or at any of the CIA secret prisons.
Sadly, the Abu Ghraib investigation and subsequent prosecution of a few low-ranking soldiers represent the U.S. government’s most extensive and greatest effort of accountability for the widespread abuse of detainees in U.S. custody.
The U.S.’s inadequate oversight and inability to hold Blackwater and other contractors accountable for serious crimes has also alienated the Iraqi and other local populations. The most high-profile of these incidents involving Blackwater private security contractors accused of killing 17 innocent civilians and wounding dozens more at a crowded intersection in Nisoor Square, Iraq inflamed the Iraqi population and badly strained U.S. Iraqi relations. While the criminal case against those American contractors has recently been reinstated, the gross mishandling by U.S. officials investigating and building the case has contributed to the Iraqi sentiment that Americans do not take accountability seriously when it comes to crimes against Iraqis.
While Abu Ghraib and Nisoor Square represent two of the more egregious examples of American abuse against Iraqis, there have been scores of reports over the last decade. But there has been almost no accountability. So it should come as no surprise that a perception of an American culture of impunity persists among Iraqis.
Until the United States is willing to squarely and comprehensively deal with its past policies of abuse and official cruelty, we will continue to alienate local populations, undermine our U.S. military and counterterrorism efforts, and diminish our moral leadership. And no American should be satisfied with this.