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The Death of #58: Last Days in the Life of Abdul Kareem

By: 
Sean Sullivan
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    The information in this article was acquired by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense, and Veterans for Peace in a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) Request. Through the story of one Iraqi’s death, and the indifference of military authorities, a vivid picture emerges of the every day treatment of prisoners in U.S. military custody.



    “He was … cool, dusky, unresponsive. Pupils were fixed and unresponsive to light. No cardiac activy [sic] was present. I determined at that time he was deceased. The patient was unfamiliar to me.”- Statement made on 12/09/2003 by b7c-4, bb-4 of the Army’s Airborne Division regarding the death of Abdul Kareem.

Abdul Kareem died of causes unknown while a prisoner at the Army Brigade Holding Area (BHA) in Mosul, Iraq on December 9, 2003. His cause of death is unknown. Perhaps Mr. Kareem had a heart attack, perhaps he was diabetic, perhaps he had an allergic reaction, or perhaps he was beaten to death. We don’t know. No one in the U.S. Army cared enough to follow through on an investigation into his death.

All we know about the fate of Abdul Kareem has come from a series of statements taken from soldiers in the U.S. Army in the days after his death. There was to have been an autopsy, as indicated in a checklist at the end of an official army report. They were going to do another round of information gathering, but from the files presented by the government, none of that ever happened. For the U.S. Army, Abdul Kareem’s death amounted to a routine filing of paperwork on which no one remembered to follow up. The cause of Mr. Kareem’s death, like too many deaths in U.S. custody in Iraq, remains unsolved.

Abdul Kareem is not the only person to die or be injured in U.S. custody in Iraq. The reports acquired by CCR and others document numerous casualties. They include accidental shootings, more deaths in the night, more injuries of unknown origin. Twenty-year-old Salah Salih Jassim was arrested and taken to the same BHA facility in Mosul as Kareem. Jassim emerged from custody later with a broken jaw. The investigation into his injuries was haphazard and produced no conclusions.

In most cases the records presented by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) show an utter lack of responsibility in investigating the incidents. To tell the story of Abdul Kareem is to tell the story of many such deaths in custody in Iraq. The way the investigation was handled and the lack of care shown by the U.S. Army leaves the cause of Mr. Kareem’s death unknown and the responsibility for those who die in U.S. hands unaccountable.

Routine matter

The report on Abdul Kareem provides little context for the references used by the soldiers interviewed. By piecing together information from other reports, a picture of the last hours of Abdul Kareem’s life becomes clearer.

The Army documents on Kareem’s death do not explain how he came into U.S. custody. He is another Iraqi who, hooded and cuffed, was taken away by U.S. forces to a holding facility. This was routine round up that happened every day to hundreds of Iraqis in 2003. Kareem was kept in a general occupation cell with numerous other Iraqis. He was apparently not a high security risk or a major target. To the men and women who were guarding Abdul Kareem, he did not even have a name. He was only “number 58.”

What is known about Kareem’s arrest is that he was taken to Army BHA in Mosul with a sandbag on his head. He was in custody for four days before he died and, according to the soldiers guarding him, he was uncooperative.

As one of his guards recounts in his testimony of the night before Kareem’s death, “When I got [to the BHA] I noticed that #58 continued to pull his sandbag up to peak around. I proceeded to pull his mask down and made him do ‘up and downs’ for approximately 20 min.”

“Up and downs” is Army jargon for a series of “correctional training exercises” used as punishment for those who disobey commands by the soldiers. Some experts have suggested that this action is a series of push-ups followed by jumps to the standing position done in rapid succession. The report itself does not detail exactly what the up and downs punishment entailed.

According to the soldiers’ reports, the up and downs did not quiet Kareem. Said one soldier, “He continued to mess with is mask/sandbag so I took his handcuffs off and put them behind his back and smoked him for another 20 minutes.” What the solider means by “smoking” is not clarified in the document. The same phrase is used in the case of another Iraqi detainee, Salah Salih Jassim. A witness’s reporting on his injuries identified “smoking” as an act by U.S. guards who “blew cigarette smoke up their sandbag hoods.”

According to statements, after Abdul Kareem’s “smoking” he was given water but continued to attempt to talk to other detainees. The reports did not specify if the soldiers knew what Kareem was saying to the other prisoners. It is not clear if any of the U.S. personnel in the room spoke Arabic beyond the commands the reports list Kareem received in both English and Arabic: “shut up,” “wake up,” and “sit down.”

According to the reports, Kareem was finally given a blanket, and he went to sleep with a hood on his head and his hands tied behind his back. According to the guards, he spoke again. The guards maintain that he did not make any unusual noises in the night. He did not ask for medical assistance. None of the other prisoners touched him. No lifesaving measures were attempted on him. The last time anyone saw him move was at three in the morning when he kicked off his blanket, and one of the soldiers placed the blanket back on top of him.

Little documentation

There is very little documentation of Abdul Kareem’s death. Three soldiers were interviewed with a combined total of thirty questions. The transcripts are written by hand, cover a total of eight pages, and are rife with errors in spelling and grammar. This is all that was asked of those who saw Kareem alive. Photos have been taken of the room in which he died, but in the report provided to the public, the images are useless black splotches.

The final report completed in the field contains minimal medical notes and is roughly half of a page long. The ulcers on Mr. Kareem’s wrists are noted, presumably from the flexi-cuffs he had worn. The report notes “a laceration on the superior occiput” (laceration on the back of his head) and “minimal blood matted in the hair.” He also had a hematoma under the skin, a “fluid filled bullae” (blister on his right bicep), and several small “ecchymoses” (signs of hemorrhages) on his stomach.

This is the end of the investigation. Thirty questions were asked of the guards who last saw Abdul Kareem alive. A medical officer looked at his body and found some bruising, some signs of hemorrhaging, perhaps, a laceration on the back of his head, and ulcers on his wrists. Kareem had been in custody four days. He had received no special medical treatment. The medical officer stated that Kareem had “no wounds that would be described as defensive.” He was dead.

The report was retyped somewhere in the Army investigation system. A timeline was produced of the events as they occurred, and a checklist drawn up of further actions to be taken. The handwritten checklist states that the investigating officer should have “attended autopsy, prepare a final draft, finish final sketch and finish photo packet.” There is no evidence any of these actions occurred. The portion of the form left for check marks of completed procedures is completely blank. There is no record of an autopsy, no final report beyond the page and a half synopsis written by the instigating officer, and no final sketches or photo packet. Abdul Kareem’s cause of death remains listed in the document as “unknown.”

Death and injury in U.S. custody are all too common in Iraq, and the Army has a clear disregard for pursing the circumstances under which ordinary Iraqis lose their lives. Someone broke Jassim’s jaw and someone killed Kareem while they were in U.S. custody. We will probably never know the actual events because no viable investigation was done.

Abdul Kareem’s case is not Abu Ghraib. He was not forced to stand on box or photographed naked. No one lead him around on a leash. Therefore, the western media seems to care little about what happened to Kareem or the hundreds of others. The lack of investigations into abuse and deaths of detainees has lead legal institutions like CCR and the ACLU to look into dozens of deaths in U.S. custody in Iraq. The Army’s evidence — unprofessional reports on Abdul Kareem’s death with numerous grammar and spelling errors, uncompleted checklist, and the cause of death left unknown — leads to just one question. Is the U.S. Army covering up what happened that night in Mosul and uninterested in the life of an Iraqi? The public and Abdul Kareem’s family may never know the truth of what happened.

Sean Sullivan works for the Center for Constitutional Rights, www.ccr-ny.org. He is a student of Political Economy at CUNY and lives in Brooklyn. All information used in the article regarding the injuries to Salah Salih Jassim is available from the ACLU at www.aclu.org/torturefoia/. The reporting by Newstandard was helpful in tracing Adul Jassim’s case. Material relating to the death of Abdul Kareem is available from CCR at http://www.ccr-ny.org/v2/reports/docs/mosul_death_report.pdf

Thanks to Heidi Reijm for her invaluable help with this piece.