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Civilian on Trial on Charges of Beating an Afghan Prisoner

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A case of alleged detainee abuse is being heard in a courtroom in North Carolina. A CIA contractor is on trial for assault after a military detainee died in U.S. custody in Afghanistan. Prosecutors say the contractor, 40-year-old David Passaro, repeatedly beat the man before his death. Passaro says he did nothing wrong.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

For three straight days at a primitive Army base in the Afghan mountains, David Passaro interrogated a suspected insurgent. At issue is whether his tactics crossed the line into criminal assault. In 2003, Passaro was working with a CIA paramilitary team, trying to get information from an Afghan man who had agreed to be questioned by American officers.

According to prosecutors, the interrogations turned violent. Passaro allegedly kicked the suspect and struck him with a metal flashlight. The man later died and Passaro was indicted for assault, a charge he's on trial for in home state of North Carolina. Duke University Law Professor Scott Silliman says this is the first time an American civilian has been tried for overseas prisoner abuse.

Professor SCOTT SILLIMAN (Duke University): Since Abu Ghraib, there is a renewed emphasis on investigating alleged atrocities. So I think the government really wants to distance themselves from this young man and basically to say what he did was so far outside the norm that he should be prosecuted.

HOCHBERG: The government charged Passaro under a part of the Patriot Act that's never been used before, giving American courts jurisdiction over U.S. installations overseas. In this week's testimony, prosecutors are trying to paint Passaro as a brutal rogue who made up his own rules.

One CIA agent testified Passaro admitted kicking the detainee in the groin. A soldier present during part of the interrogation described Passaro as screaming, red in the face and "going off." John Radsan is a former CIA attorney now teaching at William Mitchell College of Law.

Mr. JOHN RADSAN (William Mitchell College of Law): The allegations are egregious, to hit a detainee with a flashlight, to kick him for no reason, somebody that's turned himself in. And it seems that the government is in a good position to present this as a very simple assault case.

HOCHBERG: Defense lawyers are trying to persuade jurors the case is not so simple. They say the detainee, a man named Abdul Wali, was dangerous, a suspect in a recent rocket attack on the base who had to be physically restrained because he was threatening his captors.

In addition, Passaro's lawyers have laid the groundwork for what's called a public authority defense. A claim the CIA sanctioned violence against detainees, so Passaro can't be punished for it. Scott Silliman, the Duke professor, says that will be a difficult strategy, but gets at what Passaro's supervisors might have told him before the alleged crime.

Professor SILLIMAN: If the CIA said it is lawful for you to assault a detainee when you're questioning him and you may use force, including the use of an instrument like a two foot flashlight, then that might be a total defense to the charge. But from what we're hearing that type of evidence may not be forthcoming.

HOCHBERG: Passaro's trial has been conducted with an unusual level of secrecy, as the government has voiced concern about disclosing classified information. Some of the proceedings have taken place behind closed doors and CIA workers have testified wearing toupees and fake moustaches.

Attorney Priti Patel is watching the case for the advocacy group Human Rights First. She hopes that despite the secrecy the trial shines a light on how the CIA treats prisoners.

Ms. PRITI PATEL (Human Rights First): We know very little about what the CIA has approved and hasn't approved. And I think that this case is an opportunity for the government to step up and say here's what the policies were and here's how we've changed them.

HOCHBERG: If the jury convicts Passaro he could receive 40 years in prison. He also faces separate assault charges in a very different case. Police in North Carolina arrested him last year for beating his former girlfriend. He's scheduled to stand trial in that case next month.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Hochberg
Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Adam Hochberg reports on a broad range of issues in the Southeast. Since he joined NPR in 1995, Hochberg has traveled the region extensively, reporting on its changing economy, demographics, culture and politics. He also currently focuses on transportation. Hochberg covered the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, followed candidates in three Presidential elections and reported on more than a dozen hurricanes.