A US federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit filed by Iraqis who allege they were tortured by employees of a military contractor hired to interrogate prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
A panel of judges on the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled unanimously on Friday that while “the precise legal scope of the prohibition on torture is not perfectly defined,” and that “executive officers can declare the military reasonableness of conduct amounting to torture,” it is “beyond the power of even the president to declare such conduct lawful.”
The lawsuit, Al Shimari v. CACI Premier Technology was originally filed in June 2008 under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which permits non-US citizens to sue for human rights violations committed abroad. In 2014, the Fourth Circuit overturned a lower court ruling prohibiting Abu Ghraib torture victims from suing US corporations implicated in their abuse but the federal court later reversed itself, finding the case had sufficient ties to the United States to be heard in an American court. The case was later dismissed under the political question doctrine, which prevents courts from ruling on issues determined to be essentially political.
However, Friday’s ruling states:
We recognize that the legal issues presented in this case are indisputably complex, but we nevertheless cannot abdicate our judicial role in such cases. Nor will we risk weakening prohibitions under United States and international law against torture and war crimes by questioning the justiciability of a case merely because the case involves the need to define such terms. The political question doctrine does not shield from judicial review intentional acts by a government contractor that were unlawful at the time they were committed.
“Today, part of justice was achieved and this is something wonderful, not only for me and the other plaintiffs, but for all the just causes in the world,” plaintiff Salah Hassan said in response to the latest ruling on his case. “I wish to see in the coming period a ruling in our favor in this case. No doubt the result will be a white light in the process of justice in the world at the time.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), whose attorneys represent the four plaintiffs in the case, also hailed the court’s decision.
“There is no question that torture is unlawful under domestic, military, and international law,” CCR legal director Baher Azmy said on Friday. “The only issue in this case is whether CACI will be held accountable, or treated with impunity, for its role in torture at Abu Ghraib. Today’s decision reaffirms the role of the courts to assess illegality, including torture, and we are optimistic this case will finally move forward and our clients will have their day in court.”
A US military investigation found that employees of CACI and Titan Corporation (now L-3 Communications), hired to handle interrogation and translation in Iraqi prisons including Abu Ghraib during the US occupation of Iraq, tortured prisoners and encouraged US troops to do likewise. Abuses at Abu Ghraib included beatings, rape, sodomy, forced masturbation and siccing attack dogs on prisoners. One translator sodomized an Iraqi teenager while a female soldier took photos. The four Iraqi plaintiffs in the revived lawsuit say they were subjected to extreme temperatures, electric shocks, broken bones, death threats and sexual abuse.
Dozens of Abu Ghraib detainees died while in US custody, some of them as a result of being tortured to death.
Torture is strictly prohibited under domestic and international law, specifically the War Crimes Act of 1996, the Federal Anti-Torture Statute, the Torture Victims Protection Act of 1991, the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. The law also requires prosecution of anyone who devised, approved or implemented torture. However, not only has the Obama administration failed to prosecute any of the Bush officials responsible for the post-September 11, 2001 torture program, it actively defended torture memo author John Yoo from a lawsuit filed under the Torture Victims Protection Act and has thwarted all efforts to bring those who authorized torture to justice.
While Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton once supported torturing suspected terrorists under certain extreme circumstances, she now opposes torture although she is in favor of impunity for torturers “who were doing what they were told to do… [when] there were legal opinions supporting what they were told to do.” In stark contrast, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has enthusiastically embraced torture, vowing earlier this year that he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” the interrupted drowning technique used on several suspected high-level al-Qaeda militants.
In a statement reported by the Washington Post, CACI defiantly responded to the reinstated lawsuit. “We’ll proceed with our expectation unchanged: exoneration for CACI,” the company said. “Nothing in today’s decision changes our view of the ultimate outcome.”
In 2013, L-3 agreed to pay $5.28 million to 71 former Abu Ghraib detainees who were subjected to sexual assault and humiliation, rape threats, electrical shocks, mock executions, brutal beatings and who were forced to drink water until they vomited blood.