Military Contractor Abu Ghraib Trial Set to Start After Images of Abuse Emerge

A U.S. military contractor is going on trial for allegedly being part of a plot to torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War—20 years after notorious pictures of the abuse were seen around the world.

The plaintiffs, three Iraqis who were held and tortured at Abu Ghraib, first sued military contractor CACI, which supplied interrogators for the prison, in 2008. Now the civil trial, which is expected to last two weeks, is set to begin Monday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. The legal proceedings are the first time Abu Ghraib victims will tell their stories 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 documents over the years that the plaintiffs didn’t claim its interrogators directly inflicted abuse or 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 “hugely important.” 

“The rulings and verdict in this case will set the stage for how the United States conducts future combat,” Tiefer says. 

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

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

Four Iraqi civilians, another contracting company, and three individual contractors were sued in 2008. Suhail Najim Abdullah Al Shimari, the case’s namesake, was imprisoned for four years “for no reason,” including two months at Abu Ghraib, his lawyer said. 

There, he was shocked with electricity, beaten with a baton-like object, denied food and sleep, stripped naked, shaved by force, and threatened with dogs and death, according to the lawsuit.

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

The abuses at Abu Ghraib became known to the world in 2004, when The New Yorker published shocking photos of prisoners being abused by U.S. soldiers in a way that was similar to what the plaintiffs described. In one photo, a soldier held a leash around a detainee’s neck; in another, soldiers posed smiling next to naked and hooded prisoners. The pictures caused worldwide outrage, condemnations by U.S. leaders, and the closure of the prison. Eleven soldiers were convicted of criminal charges in the scandal in and after 2004.

An early complaint accused CACI of committing torture and other crimes, as well as conspiracy. But in 2018, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkeman, who will oversee the trial, tossed claims alleging direct liability. 

Brinkeman did rule that CACI could still face conspiracy charges, on the claim that its interrogators “explicitly told MPs (military police) to ‘soften up’ prisoners to prepare them for interrogation.” That was based on testimony from Ivan Frederick, a former military sergeant who was convicted of prisoner abuse by a military court in 2004. CACI has argued in court filings that the military had “actual control over the interrogation-related conduct at Abu Ghraib prison.” 

CACI also said that it and the U.S. government had immunity from the lawsuit, but Brinkeman ruled in what experts say was a significant decision 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 investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal. 

Prosecuting contractors for crimes allegedly committed abroad is a rare and difficult thing to do. 

There are “countless obstacles” to doing so, including gathering evidence, the need for extradition, and complicated questions of jurisdiction, Steven Schooner, a professor at George Washington University Law School, says in an email. 

Another civil lawsuit alleging abuse by a contractor––Titan Corp., which designed Abu Ghraib ––was settled in 2017 just before going to trial, resulting in compensation for the victims or their families. 

Tiefer says there is “no specific law” for bringing a case against contractors. He says the CACI case was brought under a “mix” of international law and the Alien Tort Statute, which says that U.S. district courts have the power to hear civil lawsuits filed by non-citizens who claim violations of international law. 

The case will be watched closely because it involves this “special” law that is “not often used in lawsuits,” Mark Bina, an attorney and litigation partner at Quarles & Brady LLP who has written about contractor accountability at Abu Ghraib, says in an email. He says that because of the relatively recent increase in the use of U.S. military contractors over the past 50 years, there isn’t much legal history for courts to use to decide how liable contractors are in combat. 

If a jury finds wrongdoing, “This would be a big step toward helping other victims get money for serious abuses in CIA or U.S. military detention after 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 have to pay damages, and it’s possible that a judgment against them could count against them when they bid on future contracts, Tiefer says.

The outcome of the case could have an impact beyond helping victims, given how much the U.S. military relies on contractors. “It’s fair to say that today, the U.S. military can’t move, communicate, fight, or take care of itself without contractor support,” Schooner says. 

Bina says that it’s hard to say what kind of precedent the case could set until there is a final ruling from an appeals court, which could take years. “But the fact that this case survived summary judgment and that there are claims that can go to trial shows that there are legal risks for military contractors working in a war,” he says.