Abu Ghraib Military Contractor Trial Set to Start 20 Years After Shocking Images of Abuse

Inside the prisons at Abu Ghraib run by Saddam Hussien during his 35-year regime taken in May 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq. Prisoners kept at Abu Ghraib prison - the biggest in the Middle East - were held in overcrowded and inhumane cells and were often subject to beatings, torture, and executions. Credit - Benjamin Lowy—Getty Images

A U.S. military contractor is about to head to trial over allegations that it participated in a conspiracy to torture detainees at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War—20 years after infamous images of the abuse were seen around the globe.

The plaintiffs, three Iraqis detained and tortured at Abu Ghraib, originally sued military contractor CACI, which provided interrogators for the prison, in 2008. Now the civil trial, which is expected to last two weeks, is scheduled to start Monday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. The legal proceedings represent the first time Abu Ghraib victims will present their claims to a U.S. jury, the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the plaintiffs, has said.

CACI has denied wrongdoing and argued in court filings over the years that the plaintiffs didn’t allege its interrogators directly inflicted abuse or sufficiently prove they directed it.

Charles Tiefer, a retired law professor and former commissioner of the federal Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011, says this trial is “enormously important.”

“The rulings and judgment in this case will set the stage for how future combat is conducted by the United States,” Tiefer says.

If the jury decides against CACI, contractors could “be reined in in the future,” Tiefer says, but if not, “the very reasons we relied so heavily on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan will lead us to rely on them for future service with the military that used to be unthinkable.” The U.S. military still contracts with CACI, with the Army in March awarding the company a $239 million deal to modernize its network.

CACI and the Center for Constitutional Rights declined to comment Friday before the trial.

Four Iraqi civilians sued CACI, another contract company, and three individual contractors in 2008. Suhail Najim Abdullah Al Shimari, after whom the case is named, was imprisoned for four years “for no reason,” including two months at Abu Ghraib, his original complaint said.

There, he was subjected to electric shocks, beaten with a baton-like instrument, deprived of food and sleep, stripped naked, forcibly shaved, and threatened with dogs and death, the complaint read.

The other contractor and the individuals were dismissed as defendants early on. One plaintiff later left the case.

The abuses at Abu Ghraib were brought to the world’s attention in 2004, when CBS News published shocking photos of prisoners subjected to abuse by U.S. soldiers that was similar to what the plaintiffs described. In one image, a soldier held a leash around the neck of a detainee; in another, soldiers smiled beside naked and hooded prisoners piled into a pyramid. The pictures spurred worldwide condemnation, apologies from U.S. leaders, and the closure of the detention site. Eleven soldiers were convicted of criminal charges in the scandal in and after 2004.

An early complaint accused CACI of committing acts of torture and other crimes, along with conspiracy. However, in 2018, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkeman, who will see the case to trial, dismissed three counts alleging direct liability.

Brinkeman did rule that CACI could still face conspiracy charges under the claim that its interrogators “explicitly instructed MPs (military police) to ‘soften up’ detainees to prepare them for interrogation.” This was based on the testimony of Ivan Frederick, a former military sergeant who was sentenced to eight years in prison by a military court for detainee abuse in 2004. CACI has contended in court filings that the military had “actual control over the interrogation-related conduct at Abu Ghraib prison.”

CACI also argued that it and the U.S. government were immune from the suit, but in what experts say was a significant order, Brinkeman ruled that they were not entitled to immunity if the allegations were true.

The three plaintiffs are expected to testify in the trial starting Monday, one in person and two remotely, along with retired Army Gen. Antonio Taguba, who led an investigation into the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Associated Press reported. 

Prosecuting contractors for crimes allegedly committed abroad is rare and challenging.

There are “innumerable hurdles” to doing so, including collecting evidence, the need for extradition, and complex issues of jurisdiction, Steven Schooner, a professor at George Washington University Law School who has written on the subject, says in an email.

Another civil lawsuit alleging abuse by a contractor––against two psychologists who designed CIA torture techniques––settled in 2017 just before going to trial, resulting in damage awards for the victims or their families.

Tiefer says there’s “no specific statute” for bringing a case against contractors. He adds the CACI case was brought under a “hodgepodge” of international law and the Alien Tort Statute, which says that U.S. district courts have jurisdiction over civil actions filed by non-citizens alleging violations of international law.

The case will be closely watched because it involves this “unique” statute that’s “not often used in litigation claims,” Mark Bina, an attorney and litigation partner at Quarles & Brady LLP who wrote about contractor accountability at Abu Ghraib, says in an email. He says because of the relatively recent rise of U.S. military contractors over the past 50 years, there’s not much legal precedent for courts to draw from to assess contractor liability in combat.

If a jury finds wrongdoing, “This would be a significant step toward helping other victims to seek redress for grave abuses in CIA or U.S. military detention in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks,” says Letta Tayler, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s crisis and conflict division, who leads work on terrorism and counterterrorism. If found guilty, CACI would face damages, and it’s possible a judgment against them could count as a negative when they bid on future contracts, Tiefer says.

The outcome of the case could have ramifications beyond remedies for victims, given the U.S. military’s dependence on contractors. “It's fair to say that today, the U.S. military can't move, communicate, fight, or sustain itself without contractor support,” says Schooner.

Bina says that it’s difficult to predict what precedent the case could set until a final appellate court ruling, which could be years away. “But the fact that this matter survived summary judgment and that triable claims exist signals that legal risks exist for military contractors operating during an armed conflict,” he says.  

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