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Former CIA Contractor Guilty of Prisoner Abuse

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

For the first time, an American civilian has been found guilty of prisoner abuse overseas. Forty-year-old David Passaro, who served as a CIA contractor in Afghanistan, was convicted today of assaulting a detainee. The man died after Passaro kicked him and beat him with a metal flashlight.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

Passaro was convicted of four assault charges stemming from two days of violence at a remote U.S. fire base in the mountains of Afghanistan. Passaro was working on a CIA paramilitary team interviewing a suspected insurgent, a man named Abdul Wali, who agreed to be questioned about a series of rocket attacks near the base.

But prosecutors say the interrogations turned brutal, with Passaro kicking Wali in the groin and bludgeoning him with a metal flashlight. Shortly after the beatings, Wali died.

Today a federal jury in Passaro's home state of North Carolina agreed his tactics constituted criminal assault. Acting U.S. Attorney George Holding told reporters the jury verdict, in his words, sends a message to the world.

Mr. GEORGE HOLDING (U.S. Attorney): And that is that no one is above nor beneath the laws of the United States of America. This assault took place 8,000 miles away from here, but because it was done at a U.S. base with an American flag flying over it, that victim found a little bit of justice here in Raleigh today.

HOCHBERG: During the week and a half long trial, Passaro's lawyers tried to portray him as a scapegoat. They said Passaro did nothing to injure the detainee and in no way caused the man's death. They painted Passaro as a patriot, bravely serving his country in wartime. Passaro, a one-time Green Beret medic and former Connecticut police officer, showed no emotion as the jury decision was read, and his lawyer, Joe Gilbert, had little comment afterward.

Mr. JOE GILBERT (Attorney for David Passaro): Dave is disappointed, of course. However, I'm really honored to have had a chance to represent Dave and people like Dave, and I look forward to continuing to represent him with zeal as we go into the sentencing process.

HOCHBERG: That sentencing likely will take place later this year. Passaro could receive a prison term as long as 11.5 years for the four assault convictions. Three of the four are misdemeanors. One is a felony. Bert Pitchford, Passaro's friend and former pastor, took issue with the verdict, especially the felony conviction, in which jurors found Passaro acted knowingly and intentionally.

Mr. BERT PITCHFORD (Friend of David Passaro): I think of intent, you know, to do bodily harm and things like that, and I know, you know, he's not doing that to intend to destroy the guy. He was just trying to get information.

HOCHBERG: While Passaro is the first American civilian convicted of prisoner abuse in the Middle East, more than 50 members of the military have been found guilty of similar crimes, according to the advocacy group Human Rights First. Several other cases remain under investigation by military and civilian authorities.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.
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