Human Rights Watch has begun a project to track how allegations of abuse and homicide against U.S. soldiers are dealt with in the military justice system.

“What we’re trying to get a handle on, is how successful the military justice system has been in investigating and prosecuting allegations of abuse,” said John Sifton, lead researcher on counter-terrorism and military affairs for the non-profit group based in New York City.

“We’re not on a witch hunt against troops; our concern is systematic failures.”

The project to collect and analyze data from more than 100 cases began in December, which includes allegations of abuse of primarily people in detention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Sifton said. According to the New York Times, Army and Navy investigators say at least 26 prisoners have died in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan in what could be criminal homicides.

Although they say it’s too early to draw conclusions, Human Rights Watch says it has concerns about how thorough investigations are and questions about light punishments for serious crimes.

“One preliminary suspicion we have — we’ll see if the data bears it out — we suspect a major problem is that commanders often opt for non-judicial punishment over courts-martial in serious cases, in cases even of homicide,” Sifton said.

It’s not the first time an advocacy group has suggested that, despite notions to the contrary, the military justice system offers far more lenient punishments than those in the civilian criminal justice system. Last year, advocacy groups for women in military said that scores of female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan had been raped, and that commanders had failed to punish the offenders and protect the victims.

Despite substantial prison time in a few high-profile cases, such as those of the Abu Ghraib military police officers, Human Rights Watch staffers said they suspected light sentences in these cases were the norm, and that they reflect badly on the United States in the rest of the world.

“When you go into a country like the U.S. went into Iraq and one of your stated goals is to establish the rule of law, one would hope you’d follow the rule of law,” said Marc Garlasco, Human Rights Watch senior military analyst.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now