Torture at Abu Ghraib: Who will bear responsibility?

A federal court is reexamining whether a civilian contractor can be sued for incidents of torture or whether the US military was ultimately responsible.

Larry Downing/Reuters
District of Columbia Anti-War Network activists take part in a 2005 demonstration in front of the US Supreme Court to oppose 'American violations of international human rights' at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Who was in charge when torture occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad: the private contractor interrogators, or the US military that hired them?

This is the question that a federal appeals court will seek to answer over the next few weeks. 

Four former Iraqi detainees filed suit against the Arlington-based military contractor CACI Premier Technology in 2008 for torture they endured while held at Abu Ghraib, including electrical shocks, sexual violence, and depravation of basic needs like food, water, and oxygen.

A federal judge threw out the lawsuit last June, because the military was responsible for directing the contractor's operations at the prison. On Thursday, the detainees' attorney appealed the case to the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The outcome of the appeal will determine whether the case will be heard or dismissed without a trial. And a trial would decide whether the victims obtain compensation for their injuries and, no less important, a measure of respect from the hands of American justice," Alberto Mora, the general counsel of the Navy from 2001 to 2006, wrote in an opinion piece for the Guardian Thursday. "If they do, it would be a first.... Indeed, no victim has ever gotten a trial." 

The United States took control of Abu Ghraib after invading Iraq in 2003, using the prison to detain suspects. Because qualified US military intelligence personnel were in short supply between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US contracted with CACI for more than $19 million to provide interrogation services.

"Further clouding the command picture are reports that the facility, which is run by military police, may have been put under the control of a military intelligence unit," The Christian Science Monitor's Ann Scott Tyson wrote in 2004, shortly after practices of physical and mental abuse at the prison came to light. "The presence of civilian contractors working side by side at the prison with military personnel without being subject to military discipline is also an issue." 

The intermixing of civilian employees and military personnel blurred responsibilities in Iraq's "lawless environment." 

The close involvement of civilians "creates a lot of stress" because while "military personal are subject to the code of military justice, it's unclear what [legal] responsibilities the civilians have," Deborah Avant, a political scientist at George Washington University, told Ms. Tyson. "It's a situation where there is a lot of opportunity for misbehavior because it's the wild west."

John O'Connor, an attorney for CACI, says criminal charges would be warranted against the civilian interrogators if any credible evidence had been submitted. 

"All told, after nearly eleven years of litigation and discovery, Plaintiffs have not identified any mistreatment they suffered at the hands of a CACI PT interrogator, nor have they developed evidence that CACI PT personnel directed anyone to mistreat any of these Plaintiffs or even that a CACI PT interrogator was assigned to interrogate any of the Plaintiffs," the defense argues in the case. 

But to the plaintiffs, the events at Abu Ghraib were all too real.

"I simply want justice. Torture needs to stop everywhere," journalist Salah Hasan Nusaif al-Ejaili, one of the former Abu Ghraib prisoners bringing a lawsuit against CACI, told Al Jazeera. "All my life I learned that justice is above all in America. So why not give me the justice I deserve?"

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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