By Matthew Bigg
A CIA contractor accused of beating an Afghan prisoner so badly that he later died told a colleague afterward that he had kicked the detainee in the groin, a prosecution witness told a federal court on Tuesday.
David Passaro, a former Special Forces medic who worked under contract with the CIA, is the first civilian to be charged with abusing a detainee in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a case that raises questions about government guidelines for interrogators, Passaro has pleaded not guilty to four counts of assault for allegedly beating Abdul Wali over two nights in June 2003. Each count carries a maximum 10 year sentence.
Interrogator guidelines have been an issue since a prisoner abuse scandal at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Some prisoners released from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba also say they were tortured or abused.
At the Passaro trial, a CIA officer who testified under the assumed name of Randy Wilson and wore a disguise to protect his identity told a jury that he had served with Passaro at a U.S. base in northeastern Pakistan in 2003.
Wilson said he saw Wali being brought into the base for interrogation and days later medics rushing to the detention facility where Wali died. Later, Passaro spoke to him about his dealings with Wali.
"He … told me that he had struck him … He said he had kicked him in the groin. I was quite surprised about that. He had said that he thought that Wali was going after someone," Wilson testified.
Defense lawyers pointed out that Wilson had not mentioned Passaro kicking Wali during an official report in June 2003.
In an opening statement on Monday, prosecutors said Passaro kicked Wali so hard that the detainee was lifted off the ground and probably fractured his pelvis, making it impossible for him to urinate. Wali died of multiple injuries, they said.
Later, Hyder Akbar, 21, a Yale University student who is also the son of the governor of Kunar province where the U.S. base was situated and has written a book about his experiences, described escorting Wali to the base to be questioned and assuring him he would not be maltreated.
"Wali was afraid of going to the Americans. He said that he had heard rumors of torture at the American base," said Akbar, who has U.S. and Afghan citizenship.
Akbar translated during the initial questioning of Wali shortly after they arrived at the base and said Passaro’s tone during the encounter was so "full of rage" that it left Wali "almost in a state of shock."
Passaro asked Wali if he wanted to give any of his possessions to his family, making Wali think he was about to be shot, Akbar said.
Assistant federal public defender Joseph Gilbert in cross-examination sought to cast doubt on the intent behind Passaro’s question, pointing out that it was standard procedure to ask fresh detainees if they wanted to hand over possessions.
During the trial, defense lawyers are likely to argue that interrogation techniques used by Passaro were consistent with CIA guidelines approved by his superiors.
A senior CIA classification officer testified that the agency had issued a directive in December 2002 that said "the conduct of (CIA) interrogations should not encompass any significant physiological aspects e.g. direct physical contacts
The prosecution aimed to show that Passaro disobeyed clear guidelines in the alleged assault on Wali.