Thirteen years after leaving Abu Ghraib prison, and nine years after filing suit in federal court, a group of former Iraqi detainees got to make the case before a judge in Alexandria, Va., on Friday that they were tortured and that the contractor CACI International is partly to blame.
U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema declined a request by CACI to dismiss the case Friday, saying she would like to develop a full record of which employees were "on the scene, and what was going on." She concluded that there is sufficient evidence for the lawsuit to proceed toward a pretrial judgment from the court or come before a jury.
Interrogators working for the contractor, which is based in Arlington, Va., are accused of directing beatings, starvation, sexual violations, sleep deprivation and other abuse of prisoners in the detention facility. The three former detainees who are plaintiffs in the suit say they were shackled in contorted positions for over a day at a time, left in freezing temperatures in winter, and attacked or threatened with dogs.
"Each Plaintiff — terrified, alone, freezing, beaten, contorted, naked, exhausted, humiliated and degraded continuously over a sustained period — suffered severe physical and mental harm, and still do," attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights argued in a court filing.
It is the first civil case against U.S. contractors to get to a point where a judge is evaluating allegations of mistreatment. Other lawsuits have been thrown out on procedural grounds. One case, against psychologists who designed brutal CIA interrogation techniques, was recently settled. In another, the contractor Engility, based in Chantilly, Va., paid $5.28 million to settle with former Abu Ghraib inmates.
We're "finally getting to the heart of the dispute — what actually happened, and did it rise to the level of torture and cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment," said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas who specializes in national security issues. "We're on somewhat new ground."
In their own court papers, CACI's attorneys argued that the treatment alleged, while "deplorable" and "undoubtedly humiliating," is "not severe enough to be considered torture."
Moreover, they said that "the military approved interrogation techniques — including many of the techniques about which Plaintiffs' complain," and that there is no evidence CACI employees were involved in any mistreatment.
Which interrogators were assigned to which detainees is classified, defense attorney John O'Connor said in court. Records show that interrogators gave specific, not general, instructions on treatment such as sleep deprivation, he said.
"They did not come out and say generally, 'Here's what you do,' " O'Connor said.
The detainees' attorneys argued that they need not show that CACI interrogators helped torture these specific detainees. Military police officers, while on trial for their own actions at Abu Ghraib, testified that CACI employees told them to abuse prisoners.
"There was a command vacuum; the CACI interrogators took de facto control," Baher Azmy, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in court. "They trained, they instructed, they praised, they ordered."
Brinkema appeared sympathetic to that argument, saying CACI need not learn specific classified assignments, only ask the few dozen interrogators working at the Abu Ghraib "hard site" at the time whether they gave any instructions to commit abuse.
While each individual incident may not rise to the level of torture or cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment, the plaintiffs say the cumulative effect was just that.
I am "always angry," Suhail Al Shimari, a 58-year-old former engineer who now teaches math, testified in a deposition this year. He said he still has scars and difficulty walking from being forced to kneel on sharp stones during his time in detention; he lost teeth during beatings and has scars on his hands from an electrified "lie detector."
Asa'ad Al-Zuba'e, a 44 year-old farmer, testified at his deposition that his hands and wrists still hurt and that he has "a spinning in my head." He testified that he was groped by guards, who photographed his genitals. He was repeatedly subjected to extreme cold, shackled standing with his feet barely able to touch the floor for nearly 24 hours, beaten and bitten by a dog, he said.
Salah Al Ejaili, 46, a reporter for Al Jazeera, said he also was beaten, shackled in stress positions and left naked in the cold. He was starved for days, he said, allowed to sleep only an hour or two a night, and threatened with dogs.
All three — who were eventually released without charges — report suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and ongoing physical pain.
The case has four times gone to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, dragging on for years through various disputes. Twice the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge — once on the grounds that the alleged abuse occurred overseas, and once because such behavior amounts to a "political question" of sensitive military judgments. Both times the suit was revived by the appeals court.
"Finally, there's momentum," Azmy said after the hearing. "This is the first time a court has effectively conceded that there's sufficient evidence that these Abu Ghraib detainees endured torture or cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment."
A similar lawsuit was thrown out by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2009, on the grounds that CACI should be immune from prosecution because its contractors were working under military authority.
CACI is expected to continue fighting vigorously against any liability for abuses in Iraq. The company's former chief executive, J. Phillip "Jack" London, published a book in 2008 titled "Our Good Name: A Company's Fight to Defend Its Honor and Get the Truth Told About Abu Ghraib."