Videos capturing the actions of a US military squad assigned to subdue disobedient prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have emerged as key pieces of evidence as American politicians look into complaints of abuse.
An unidentified number of tapes were being held at the Pentagon yesterday while the military considered what would become of them, defence officials said.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has asked the defence department that the tapes be turned over by Monday for review by the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees.
One released British prisoner, 26-year-old Terek Dergoul, told The Observer last week that he was assaulted by a squad he knew as the “Extreme Reaction Force” and that all such attacks were filmed.
“They pepper-sprayed me in the face… pinned me down and attacked me, poking their fingers in my eyes, and forced my head into the toilet pan and flushed,” Dergoul said.
“They tied me up like a beast and then they were kneeling on me, kicking and punching.”
The US military has denied any major instances of abuse at Guantanamo. A spokesman at the base, Navy Lieutenant Commander Robert Mulac, said yesterday that “there are no beatings on the tapes” and that the squad was actually known as the “Initial Response Force”.
It remains unclear what the tapes show, but Mulac said the squad was dispatched in rare circumstances to deal with misbehaving inmates. For instance, he said, the team could be ordered to move a detainee to another cell block if he threw a cup of urine at guards.
Responding to the outcry over photos showing abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent the navy’s inspector general, Vice Admiral Albert Church, to Guantanamo earlier this month for a review.
Church said he found no major problems, although there were eight instances of “minor infractions involving contact”. In one case, he said a prison guard punched a detainee who had bitten him.
Following complaints of abuse, two guards have been demoted in rank and a third was acquitted in a court martial, officials said.
Church watched some tapes during his visit and took examples back with him, Mulac said.
Last week two released British detainees complained in a letter to US officials that interrogators forced prisoners to strip and used loud music, strobe lights and dogs to extract confessions. The military denied it.
The Britons, Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, also said they saw members of the “Extreme Reaction Force” rough up inmates and that it was common enough to be known as “ERFing”.
Mulac called their claims “blatant lies”, saying squad members were trained to settle confrontations without force and use only “minimal force” if necessary.
Some 600 men are being held without charges and interrogated at the base on suspicion of links to al-Qaida terror network or Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban rulers.
The videotapes are “going to be the best evidence on whether Guantanamo was another Abu Ghraib”, said Michael Ratner, a lawyer who represents some detainees and heads the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights.
He said Congress should order the tapes turned over quickly to safeguard them as evidence.