Landmark Case For Iraqi Prisoners Tortured In Abu Ghraib

The Centre of Constitutional Rights (CCR) first filed a case against US Defence Contractor CACI Premier Technology on behalf of four Iraqi men in 2008 under the Alien Tort Statute.  Accusations against CACI included allegations of torture and war crimes committed whilst the men were being detained in the ‘hard site’ of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where detainees are suspected to be of ‘military intelligence value.’  Ten years later, a federal judge in Virginia has made a pivotal decision in Al Shimari v. CACI, finding that the treatment of these Iraqi men contravened US domestic and international law.  Judge Leonie Brinkema’s 54-page ruling decisively dismissed CACI’s claim that the company was not liable for the alleged treatment, even if its employees were found to be complicit.

Judge Brinkema stated, “plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that CACI’s and its employees’ actions to aid the abuses were undertaken with the necessary purpose of facilitating the abusive conduct because the goal of the abusive regime was to ‘soften up’ the detainees to convince them to cooperate with CACI’s interrogators.”  Baher Azmy, Legal Director at the CCR, applauded the decision, characterizing it as “a historical judicial rebuke to the Bush administration’s torture paradigm, which had sought to evade the well-established prohibitions against torture, and is one of the clearest statements in the post-9/11 era that victims of torture and grave human rights abuses can access the courts for a remedy.”

Historically, the Alien Tort Statute has been the subject of split rulings by the lower courts and cryptic treatment by the US judicial system.  In 2013, the case was dismissed by a district court, which held that the accusations were committed outside of the US and, as such, were beyond its jurisdiction.  The decision was ironically handed down on the 26th of June, the United Nations’ International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.  However, the CCR was later successful in establishing that the alleged treatment of the men overcame the presumption of extraterritoriality because they significantly ‘touch and concern’ the lawful conduct of the US.  Accordingly, it was held that CACI’s conduct could not be overlooked on account of the following: CACI is a US company, CACI employed US citizens, and CACI employees needed security clearance from the US Department of Defense.

This ruling has several key implications for prosecution of torture and abuse in the future.  Firstly, Brinkema’s ruling strengths the rule of law and permits more rigorous prosecution of war crimes from the top-down.  While low-level military officers were previously court-martialled over their inhuman and degrading treatment of the prisoners, CACI continued to be awarded high-volume contracts with the US Department of Defense.  Secondly, Al Shimari vs. CACI helps to clarify the Alien Tort Statute and signals greater accountability for US citizens who were once immune to punishment for actions outside of the US.  Whether operating within defense or commercial hierarchies, such individuals are no longer able to take advantage of foreign countries with weak legal systems to commit torture.

This landmark case provides a meaningful counter narrative to the extensive force that capital-intensive corporations have mounted against the Alien Tort Statute in the past.  Organizations such as CACI no longer have a license to aid and abet torture outside the US with amnesty.  Commentators often speak to a bi-fold “before-9/11 and after-9/11” dimension of US law, describing the selective ignorance of US officials in adhering to international law and detention practices in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the US.  It is believed that the degrading treatment of prisoners held at Abu Ghraib was not isolated, but rather was also committed at other offshore detention centres in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.  The ruling in Al Shimari vs. CACI is a positive step towards remedying this systematic abuse.