US soldiers told their superiors they witnessed three Seals dropping heavy stones on detainees chests, kicking and stepping on their heads, firing weapons during an interrogation, and employing a variation of waterboarding.
The Navy Seals are an elite special operations force perhaps best known for carrying out the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The beatings by the Seals and members of an Afghan militia were so severe that one man died hours later and another has lasting injuries from the 2012 incident.
The interrogations followed an explosion at an Afghan Local Police (ALP) checkpoint in the village of Kalach which killed a member of the ALP militia.
The militiamen, who were trained by the Seals, rounded up approximately six suspects and brought them to a US base, beating them with rifles and antennae along the way.
What happened next shocked Specialist David Walker, an Army medic, and other witnesses.
Instead of ending the beatings and reprimanding the ALP members, they say the three Seals joined in and even intensified the abuse.
When the men were released later that afternoon they were bloodied and hobbling. One, Muhammad Hashem, 24, was unable to walk. He died later the same day.
Specialist Walker and three fellow soldiers decided to report the incident.
“It just comes down to what’s wrong and what’s right,” he told the New York Times. “You can’t squint hard enough to make this gray.”
A Navy lawyer recommended that the Seals be charged with assault, and potentially face a court martial.
Instead, the charges were processed in a closed disciplinary process more commonly used for minor infractions, and the men were moved to different units but faced no further punishment.
Captain Robert Smith, then commander of all East Coast-based Seals and now a senior official in the department of the Navy, ultimately cleared the men of all charges.
He said eyewitness accounts of what took place were inconsistent, and “did not give me enough confidence in their overall accuracy to hold the accused accountable for assaults or abuse”.
Staff Sergeant David Roshak, one of the witnesses, believes the Seals attempted to cover-up what took place.
“If it was the other way around, me and my guys would be in trouble,” he said. “We’d be locked up.”
Three of the men who were beaten, including the man who was killed, made their living by wandering from village to village selling scrap metal.
One of the men, named Assadullah, said they had only recently arrived in Kalach and had no connection to the explosion, but that militia members burst into their market stall and began striking them with rifle butts.
He described the brutal interrogations, and said the injuries he sustained are still with him.
“I feel pain in my whole body, and in the morning I cannot get up,” he said. “I don’t have money to treat this or to go to a doctor. I cannot pay for medicine.”
According to the New York Times report, word of the beatings spread quickly in the area, and soured relations between local residents and US troops.
Three of the Seals implicated in the beatings declined to comment to the New York Times.
The fourth, Petty Officer Xavier Silva, said, “If you knew what it was like on the ground, it would look different”.