Privacy SOS

Private contractors on trial: Abu Ghraib torture and Nisour Square massacre victims still seeking justice

Today the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that survivors of torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib prison may pursue justice in US courts against military contractor CACI, Inc.. Last year a district court dismissed their lawsuit, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Presumably today's circuit court ruling means that the torture survivors will not have to pay CACI’s legal fees, despite the company’s attempt to force them to pay for their previously failed lawsuit.

Here’s CCR on the important Fourth Circuit decision, and its implications for people who seek justice for crimes against humanity committed by American corporations overseas.

The appeals court ruling overturned a lower court decision that had barred the survivors from suing U.S. corporations involved in the torture in U.S. courts.  U.S. military investigators had determined in 2004 that private U.S.-based contractor CACI Premier Technology, Inc. (CACI) had participated in torture and other “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” of detainees at Abu Ghraib, yet a district judge ruled that the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v. Shell/Royal Dutch Petroleum foreclosed claims arising out of Iraq. Today’s decision, by contrast, recognized that CACI could be held liable in U.S. courts under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) for its role in the torture. The case, Al Shimari v. CACI International Inc., was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of four Iraqi men who were tortured at Abu Ghraib.

Said CCR Legal Director Baher Azmy, “Today’s court ruling affirms that U.S. corporations are not entitled to impunity for torture and war crimes and that holding U.S. entities accountable for human rights violations strengthens this country’s relationship to the international community and basic human rights principles.”

Kiobel recognized a “presumption against extraterritorial application” of the ATS, but explicitly held that the presumption could be displaced in cases that “touch and concern” the United States “with sufficient force.” At Abu Ghraib, the men were subjected to electric shocks, sexual violence, forced nudity, broken bones, and deprivation of oxygen, food, and water.  U.S. military investigators concluded that several CACI employees serving as interrogators directed abuse of Abu Ghraib employees in order to “soften” them up for interrogations. The court of appeals found that human rights abuses committed by a U.S. corporation at a U.S.-controlled prison in a conspiracy with U.S. soldiers, does “touch and concern” the United States sufficiently to permit the claims to proceed.
“This is an important ruling not just for our clients, who have sought justice for over a decade; it affirms the vitality of human rights litigation even after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel.” continued Azmy.

The ruling is timely, coming just hours after the publication of a bombshell story by James Risen in the New York Times about another troubled military contractor, Blackwater. The journalist, whom the Obama administration may imprison for his refusal to disclose a confidential source, reports that the top Blackwater official in Iraq threatened to kill US State Department investigators who were looking into shady contractor activities.

According to a State Department internal memo disclosed to Risen, the Navy SEAL Team 6 soldier turned Blackwater Iraq manager, Daniel Carroll, told US investigator Jean Richter "that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq," Richter wrote.

"Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine. I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract," the memo says.

Shamefully, the State Department’s response to this threat was to transfer Richter and his co-investigator, Donald Thomas, out of the country.

Risen writes:

Mr. Richter was shocked when embassy officials sided with Mr. Carroll and ordered Mr. Richter and Mr. Thomas to leave Iraq immediately, according to the documents. On Aug. 23, Ricardo Colon, the acting regional security officer at the embassy, wrote in an email that Mr. Richter and Mr. Thomas had become “unsustainably disruptive to day-to-day operations and created an unnecessarily hostile environment for a number of contract personnel.” The two men cut short their inquiry and returned to Washington the next day.

When they returned to Washington, State Department workers Richter and Thomas wrote the memo upon which Risen bases his story, which described the death threat and the hostile environment created by Blackwater in Iraq. Just months after that memo was written, in October 2007, Blackwater personnel opened fire on Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad, injuring 18 and killing 17, including a 9 year-old boy. Today, four of those mercenaries will face murder and manslaughter charges in DC court—the second time the Department of Justice has tried to hold them responsible for the killings.

The privatization of US forces and spying is a serious problem, particularly when the companies hired to serve the government end up in control. That problem is extremely disturbing in the context of the ever-sprawling security state, where about 70 percent of the federal "intelligence" budget is farmed out to private contractors.

Do you think those companies have your back, or their own?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.