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CNN Live Today

Detainees Abused?

Aired November 16, 2005 - 10:33   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: The U.S. military is reporting that four more American troops have died in Iraq. Three soldiers assigned to Task Force Baghdad died yesterday when their patrol struck a roadside bomb north of Baghdad and near Al Karma. A suicide car bomber killed a U.S. marine involved in combat operations.
The U.S. military reports the capture of a man believed to be behind all the terrorist operations in and around the Iraqi city of Sadaa (ph). The military says Ayadda Hussein Matar (ph) was one of several suspected insurgents and foreign fighters captured earlier this month in a raid on a suspected safehouse. U.S. officials say he has admitted to being the amir of Sadaa for Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Well, as Iraq faces international over the abuse of detainees, its deputy interior minister says he cannot deny the charges. U.S. forces searching for a missing boy stumbled across a building filled with some 161 detainees. Many showed signs of torture. Iraqi police say the prisoners were held in a secret complex manned by police commandos, who work for the interior ministry. CNN's Nic Robertson will have a full report on this during the next hour.

The U.S. is also facing new allegations of prisoner abuse. According to two former detainees, one American weapon of choice is so dastardly it stretches the imagination, a cage full of lions. Some say the claims themselves stretch credibility.

CNN's Tom Foreman explains.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was three months after the fall of Baghdad, in 2003, that Thahe Mohammed Sabbar's tale of torment began.

THAHE MOHAMMED SABBAR, FORMER IRAQI DETAINEE (through translator): I had a very modern life.

FOREMAN: That's when he says he and 20 others were seized at his business by U.S. soldiers, handcuffed, hooded, beaten and taken to one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.

SABBAR (through translator): Immediately, as they pulled the bag off my head, I saw the lions right in front of me.

FOREMAN: Sabbar says he was in front of a cage of lions and that two soldiers carried him to the cage door, while another swung it wide. SABBAR (through translator): At the time, as he opened the door, they put me right at the beginning, at the front of the cage. And when the lions came very quickly towards us, was a very horrific noise. At that time, the two pulled me and the third closed the door.

FOREMAN (on camera): So, then, what happened?

SABBAR (through translator): I lost conscious at that moment for a -- for a period of time. They woke me up by so beating me.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Then, he says, he and the group were put against a wall. Soldiers pointed rifles at them and fired -- blanks.

SABBAR (through translator): I could not stand up very well. And I urinated on my own clothes.

FOREMAN: Day after day, through six months of confinement, he says he was beaten, deprived of sleep, food, water, medical care, that he was sodomized by U.S. soldiers and shot with an electric prod.

SABBAR (through translator): I thought my life had ended. I was turned into a man that is completely hopeless for any potential for life.

FOREMAN: Many of Sabbar's complaints and those of seven other detainees are in lawsuits filed against U.S. military leaders, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They seek to have the military officials declared in violation of U.S. and international law.

Lucas Guttentag is the ACLU attorney on the case.

LUCAS GUTTENTAG, ACLU ATTORNEY: Let's just be clear. It is absolutely irrefutable that widespread torture and abuse occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's the findings of the military's own reports. The question is, who is going to be held accountable for that?

FOREMAN: At the Pentagon, however, their story, in particular, the lions, is drawing skepticism that it might be part of insurgent tactics.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It seems quite farfetched. People are -- obviously, every -- everything that everyone alleges is looked into. But you have got to keep in mind that the -- the documents that were found, I believe in Manchester, train people, terrorists, to lie about their treatment. And they do it consistently. And it always works.

FOREMAN: The Pentagon says, through 12 major investigations and 2,800 interviews about alleged prisoner abuse, lions never showed up, not once.

Saddam Hussein's now dead son Uday had lions, but the International Fund For Animal Welfare and the man who was in charge of those animals tell us most were taken to the zoo two months before Sabbar was picked up. And the rest were kept under lock and key by zoo officials at another palace.

What's more, the lion story does not appear in Sabbar's own lawsuit. Still:

GUTTENTAG: We have confidence in the allegations we put in the complaint, and in the conduct that our clients were subjected to, and in the statements that they have made about the abuse that they suffered. We have complete confidence in that. And we look forward to proving it. And if...


FOREMAN (on camera): So, you would believe -- if you believe the statements they made, you believe this happened?

GUTTENTAG: Oh, we -- we...


FOREMAN: The lion -- the lion thing happened?

GUTTENTAG: We think that's entirely consistent with the other kinds of abuse that happened.

FOREMAN (voice-over): So, why not include the lions in the lawsuits? Why not include Sabbar's accusations that guards randomly fired rubber bullets at prisoners?

(on camera): When would they do this?

SABBAR (through translator): Whenever it suits them, whenever they like.

GUTTENTAG: Because a lawsuit is the beginning; it is not the end.

FOREMAN (voice-over): The lawsuit does include a graphic description of how U.S. soldiers sodomized Sabbar. But when we asked about this serious accusation:

SABBAR (through translator): I don't like to speak about that.

FOREMAN (on camera): But it did happen?

SABBAR (through translator): I don't want -- I don't wish to speak about that.

FOREMAN: You don't want to say if it did happen or not?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's cut that off.

FOREMAN: Hold on. Hold on.

(voice-over): Sabbar's lawyers tried to stop the interview at this point. And, a few minutes later, when we had to change tapes, he left and never returned. But the lawyers did, first to insist we not show Sabbar's reaction to those last questions, saying, while they wanted the accusation of sodomy in this story, Sabbar was too embarrassed to be questioned about it. And, second, the lawyers disavowed something their own client said.

Time and again, in my hour-long interview, I asked Sabbar if he was ever questioned by the people tormenting him.

(on camera): It sounds like what you're saying here is, in the entire time you were captive, you were never questioned about anything.

SABBAR (through translator): No. That's what I'm saying.

FOREMAN (voice-over): The lawyers indicated Mr. Sabbar was still in the hotel where we conducted these interviews. So, we asked if he could come back down and clear up that point. He did not.

But this did happen. Three-and-a-half-hours after Sabbar left the interview room, the lawyers brought in a second detainee from the lawsuits, Sherzad Khalid. He told us he was arrested with Sabbar, kept in the same prison and subjected to many of the same torments. But, he says, he was questioned relentlessly.

SHERZAD KAMAL KHALID, FORMER IRAQI DETAINEE (through translator): The first question was, "Where is Saddam?" I laughed. I thought he was joking. And then he...

FOREMAN (on camera): Do you have any idea why your friend would say that he was tortured all the time, too, and they never asked him any questions?

KHALID (through translator): I have no idea. I'm telling my own story.

FOREMAN (voice-over): None of this proves or disproves whether these men are telling the truth.

This lawsuit may produce evidence that more Iraqis were brutalized by American soldiers. Or it may show that American soldiers are being unjustly accused of things they did not do. And, in the midst of a difficult war, either may be hard to accept.


WHITFIELD: A new CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll asks Americans their opinions about the detainee abuse. When asked if they believe U.S.has tortured prisoners, nearly three out of four people polled said yes. Twenty percent said no. And as for this question -- should the U.S. torture suspected terrorists? -- 38 percent said yes, more than half said no.

Well, we've been monitoring the damage across five mid-western states here, caused by a series of tornadoes, 35 in all. Now this weather is moving east. What's in store for that part of the country? Bonnie Schneider fills us in next.

And passengers on a Las Vegas thrill ride get more than they expected. That and more when CNN LIVE TODAY returns.


WHITFIELD: Take a look at this. Video of a tornado in Madisonville, Kentucky. That area sustained significant damage from a storm system that swept through late yesterday. A total of 35 tornadoes touched down in five states. Two deaths were blamed on the severe weather; one in Kentucky, one in Indiana. Dozens of homes in the region were destroyed or heavily damaged.


WHITFIELD: Well, talk of a post-storm of another sort. FEMA is giving notice to Katrina and Rita evacuees still staying in hotels. The agency says it will stop paying for hotel and motel rooms for a majority of storm victims on December 1st. By FEMA estimates, about 53,000 families remain in hotels. The agency wants them to move to travel trailers, mobile home or apartments until permanent housing can be found. FEMA is granting exceptions in Louisiana and Mississippi, where there is still too few houses to go around.

Well, we have a winner. One winning ticket was sold in last night's $315 million Mega-Millions Lottery. We'll tell where you.

Plus, after a pretty fancy dance move -- ooh -- what brought this performer to his knees, literally. We're going coast-to-coast when CNN LIVE TODAY returns.


WHITFIELD: Google plans to take on more of the world. At least the information world. The Internet giant launched a new service earlier today called Google Base. It's an ambitious project that serves notice to newspapers and online advertising sites. Ebay and Craigslist could become a competitor. Google Base plans to include a wide variety of advertisements, recipes, photos, even DNA sequences and more.

Why, you may wonder? One industry watcher says, just to see what people will do with it. Just out of curiosity.


Let's take a look at other stories making news coast-to-coast now.

Someone in California woke up $315 million richer this morning. The winning Mega Millions Lotto ticket was bought in Anaheim, California. The lucky numbers drawn last night, just in case you don't believe that only one ticket was sold: 2, 4, 5, 40, 48, with the Mega Ball, 7.

And riders on a Las Vegas thrill ride, the X Scream, got much more than expected. They were left stranded 27 feet off the edge of the Stratosphere Hotel Casino during a power outage that lasted more than an hour. Nevada Power spokesperson says crossed wires shut down a circuit.

And take a look at this. Mexican pop star Juan Gabriel is recovering after taking a tumble off stage. Look at this. Ouch! Newspaper reports say he broke his wrist. That's it? When he fell just minutes into his opening set during a concert in Houston, and we've got to let you see it one more time because it looks so painful. He apparently got tangled up in his mic cord. The pop star is said to be just fine, he's resting, and probably a little embarrassed.

We'll be right back with a check of business news again.

Plus turmoil in the art world. Accusations that artifacts acquired by the J. Paul Getty museum were actually stolen. A former curator in court today. The details of this story straight ahead.


WHITFIELD: A former curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum appeared in a Rome court today on charges of receiving stolen artifacts. Marion True denies the charges which follow a decade-long investigation. The Getty Museum in Los Angeles returned three disputed works to Italy last week, but Italian officials want another 39 disputed treasures acquired by True returned. Prosecutors believe the artifacts were illegally excavated or stolen and later acquired by the Getty.

The sad aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: the official body search in new Orleans ended weeks ago. So why now are residents coming home to still find the bodies of loved ones. Plus Tibetan monks have practiced it for centuries, now a new study out says meditation can make you brainier. We'll tell you how.