Former CIA contractor David Passaro was sentenced yesterday in a North Carolina courtroom to eight years in prison for the torture of an Afghan detainee who later died. He was the first U.S. citizen charged and convicted of detainee abuse during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the first charged under the USA Patriot Act, which extended U.S. prosecutors' reach to foreign soil.

Passaro's sentencing came six months after a jury convicted the 40-year-old Lillington, N.C. resident of one felony and three misdemeanor assault charges for his role in the 2003 death of Abdul Wali, a farmer suspected of taking part in rocket attacks on a U.S. military installation in Afghanistan's Kunar Province.

A 13-year Army veteran and former Special Forces medic, Passaro had been working under contract with the CIA as part of a paramilitary force tracking terrorists near the Pakistan border. Wali turned himself in for questioning after learning he was a suspect in the attacks. Though he steadfastly denied any involvement, he was targeted for brutal treatment by Passaro, the Raleigh News & Observer reports:

Prosecutors say Passaro created a "chamber of horrors" for Wali, ordering soldiers not to allow him to sleep, limiting his access to food and water and subjecting him to two consecutive nights of interrogation and beatings. Beyond the smacks to the shins, elbows and wrists, soldiers testified that Passaro kicked Wali in the groin hard enough to lift him off the ground and jabbed Wali in the abdomen with a flashlight. After the two nights of beatings, Wali begged the soldiers to shoot him in the head and was left moaning a phrase that meant, "I'm dying."

It wasn't the first time Passaro had engaged in illegal, vicious behavior: His ex-wife claimed during the trial that he had assaulted a neighbor and was violent throughout their marriage, and he was also accused of beating his stepson Michael Matthew Newman for many years -- sometimes even using a flashlight as he had with Wali, according to the N&O:

Newman, a former Marine, told federal officials that Passaro would interrogate him about minor household mishaps from a spill to a damaged screen door. Newman says Passaro would beat him with a stick wrapped in cloth to avoid leaving marks on his body. Newman says Passaro also would beat him with a spoon, a hammer and a flashlight on the elbows, upper arms, legs and outer thighs -- locations that lessen the likelihood of leaving marks, prosecutors say.

Passaro also demonstrated to Newman the technique of shining a flashlight to temporarily blind a person and then striking him with the flashlight. On one occasion, Newman says Passaro ordered him to use the technique on a child who had stolen Newman's candy.

Following the sentencing, U.S. Attorney George E.B. Holding, whose Eastern District of North Carolina office prosecuted the case, issued a statement condemning the contractor's behavior:

Passaro's conduct was an affront to all of our men and women serving and fighting to spread freedom and the rule of law. The sentence today, clearly shows that no one is above or below the laws of the United States.

But is that really what the sentence shows? Or does it show that federal authorities are willing to prosecute only low-level lackeys while allowing the masterminds behind U.S. torture policies to go unpunished?

Consider the Bush administration's dramatically expanded use of a highly secretive program known as "extraordinary rendition," which involves shipping terrorist suspects to foreign countries to be tortured. Last month, a German prosecutor's office issued arrest warrants for 13 people who were allegedly part of a North Carolina-based CIA team that mistook German citizen Khaled El-Masri for a terrorist; kidnapped, beat and drugged him; and flew him to a covert prison in Afghanistan where he was tortured for months before the agents realized their error and dumped him off on a rural roadside in Albania. U.S. authorities, meanwhile, not only refused to seek justice for El-Masri but even refused to hear his civil case in federal court, claiming it would hurt national security.

And then there are the examples of horrific detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, which the administration has blamed on a few bad apples. In response to the abuse at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. Department of Defense removed 17 soldiers and officers from duty, with seven soldiers convicted in court martials, sentenced to federal prison time, and dishonorably discharged, and the prison's commanding officer demoted. But even though the American Civil Liberties Union obtained a memo signed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez authorizing interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib that violated Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army's own standards, Sanchez has not faced prosecution by U.S. authorities.

The ACLU and Human Rights First have filed a lawsuit against Sanchez. They have also filed a suit against Donald Rumsfeld, charging the former U.S. Defense Secretary with direct responsibility for the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. military custody -- the first federal court lawsuit to name a top U.S. official in the ongoing torture scandal. Though Rumsfeld argues that he is immune from responsibility for acts of torture committed under his watch, retired military officers and military experts have filed an amicus brief in support of the case.

"There must be legal accountability in a court of law for high-ranking government officials who order or allow torture in violation of the most fundamental legal norms that govern our society," ACLU attorney Lucas Guttentag said in a recent statement on the case, which was filed in March 2005. "Torture is universally prohibited but Secretary Rumsfeld and the other defendants have not been held responsible for the orders they gave and the abuse they permitted."