The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on Thursday made public hundreds of claims for damages by family members of civilians killed or injured by Coalition Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ACLU received the records in response to a Freedom of Information Act request it filed in June 2006.
The hundreds of files provide a vivid snapshot, in significantly more detail than has previously been compiled and released, of the circumstances surrounding reports of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
‘Since US troops first set foot in Afghanistan in 2001, the Defense Department has gone to unprecedented lengths to control and suppress information about the human costs of war,’ said Anthony D Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU.
He added: ‘Our democracy depends on an informed citizenry, and it is critical that the American people have access to full and accurate information about the prosecution of the war and the implications for innocent civilians.’
The ACLU pointed out that during both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US Defense Department has instituted numerous policies designed to control information about the human costs of war.
These policies include:
• Banning photographers on US military bases from covering the arrival of caskets containing the remains of US soldiers killed overseas;
• Paying Iraqi journalists to write positive accounts of the US war effort;
• Inviting US journalists to ‘embed’ with military units but requiring them to submit their stories for pre-publication review;
• Erasing journalists’ footage of civilian deaths in Afghanistan; and
• Refusing to disclose statistics on civilian casualties.
The files made public on Thursday are claims submitted to the US Foreign Claims Commissions by surviving Iraqi and Afghan family members of civilians said to have been killed or injured or to have suffered property damages due to actions by Coalition Forces.
The ACLU released a total of 496 files: 479 from Iraq and 17 from Afghanistan.
The documents released by the ACLU are available online in a searchable database at www.aclu.org/civiliancasualties.
Most of the Iraq claims range from early 2003 to late 2006; the majority are from 2005.
Most claims from Afghanistan are from May 2006, with one dating back to 2001.
Based on the number of deaths represented and the variation in number and location of claims per year, the ACLU said it believes there are additional documents being withheld and is pressing the US Defense Department to disclose them all.
Of the 496 files, 198 were denied because the military found that the incidents arose ‘from action by an enemy or resulted directly or indirectly from an act of the armed forces of the United States in combat’, which the military calls ‘combat exclusion.’
Of the 496 claims, 164 incidents resulted in cash payments to family members.
In approximately half of the cash payment cases, the United States accepted responsibility for the death of the civilian and offered a ‘compensation payment’.
In the other half, US authorities issued ‘condolence’ payments, which are discretionary payments capped at $2,500 and offered ‘as an expression of sympathy’ but ‘without reference to fault’.
Claims based on incidents that were not reported in the military’s ‘SIGACT’ (‘significant act’) database, despite eyewitness corroborations, are generally denied for compensation although a condolence payment may be issued.
The files provide a window into the lives of innocent Afghans and Iraqis caught in conflict zones.
In one file, a civilian from the Salah Ad Din province in eastern Iraq states that US forces opened fire with more than one hundred rounds on his sleeping family, killing his mother, father and brother.
The firepower was of such magnitude that 32 of the family’s sheep were also killed.
The Army acknowledged responsibility and the claim resulted in two payments: a compensation payment of $11,200 and a $2,500 condolence payment.
In another file, a civilian in Baghdad states that his only son, a nine-year-old, was playing outside when a stray bullet hit and killed him.
The Army acknowledged responsibility and paid compensation of $4,000.
‘As these files remind us, war imposes heavy burdens on innocent civilians,’ said Jameel Jaffer, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s National Security Programme.
Jaffer continued: ‘Although these files are deeply disturbing to read, they allow us to understand the human cost of war in a way that statistics and the usual platitudes do not.’
The ACLU noted that a significant number of the files – 92 of 496 – relate to deaths at checkpoints (50 files) or near American convoys (42 files).
In one file, a civilian states that his son drove up to a checkpoint in Kirkuk, was shot at through the roof of the car and hit in the abdomen; he later died from his wounds.
An e-mail in the file from an Army sergeant states: ‘How was he supposed to know to get out of the vehicle when they fired warning shots?
‘If I was in his place I would have stayed put too.’
The claim was denied although the sergeant suggested that the civilian might seek a condolence payment.
In another file, a civilian states that his mother was killed, his four-year-old brother suffered shrapnel wounds to the head, and his sister was shot in the leg after the taxi they were riding in ran through a checkpoint in the eastern Iraq town of Baquba.
An Army memorandum states: ‘(T)here is evidence to suggest that the warning cones and printed checkpoint signs had not yet been displayed in front of the checkpoint, which may be the reason why the driver of the Taxi did not believe he was required to stop.’
The Army suggested a condolence payment of $7,500. It is not known whether it was granted.
Attorneys on the Freedom of Information Act project are Jaffer and Nasrina Bargzie of the national ACLU.
In a separate project, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2003 for records concerning the abuse of prisoners held by US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay.
To date, that request has resulted in the release of more than 100,000 pages, all of which are available online at: www.aclu.org/torturefoia.