A group of Iraqi nationals who were detained at the U.S.-controlled compound at Abu Ghraib in Iraq may proceed with their case against a federal contractor that they claim is largely responsible for subjecting them to acts of torture, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.
The case of the four men — Suhail Al Shimari, Taha Rashid, Salah Hassan and Asa’ad Al-Zuba’e — has had a long history in the courts. In this latest round, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that the contractor could be held liable on the basis of criminal or otherwise illegal conduct by its employees.
The contractor, CACI Premier Technology, Inc., described in court documents as a provider of “contract interrogation services,” had been fighting for years to get the lawsuit dismissed. In this instance, CACI argued that the case presented a “political question” that federal courts should simply stay out of.
The appeals court thought otherwise.
“We recognize that the legal issues presented in this case are indisputably complex, but we nevertheless cannot abdicate our judicial role in such cases,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Milano Keenan in the ruling ― the fourth time her court addressed this case since it was filed in 2008.
In their complaint, the Iraqi prisoners said that the interrogators working at Abu Ghraib for the military contractor operated in a “command vacuum” that left them free to conspire with low-level service members in the abuses ― including sustained beatings, choking, sexual assault, electric shocks, threats with dogs and food and water deprivation. These acts, the plaintiffs said, were aimed at “softening them up” for later interrogations.
If proven, the court said, this kind of egregious misconduct ― for which a number of soldiers have been convicted or faced administrative sanctions ― means that courts have ample power to review and adjudicate it.
“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,” the court said.
The practical effect of the decision is that the case may move forward before a trial court, which will now have to determine the scope of these acts and whether there are any “grey areas” that may allow the contractor to escape liability.
The determination of specific violations of law is constitutionally committed to the courts, even if that law touches military affairs. U.S. Circuit Judge Henry Floyd
In a separate concurring opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Henry Floyd emphasized that even if it was military officials who directed the contractor to engage in acts “amounting to torture,” that it is not up to the military ― or the president, for that matter ― to set the contours of what’s legal.
“The determination of specific violations of law is constitutionally committed to the courts, even if that law touches military affairs,” Floyd said.
Though limited in reach, the ruling was welcomed by Salah Hassan, an Al Jazeera journalist who was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib in November 2003, shortly after the start of the Iraq War.
“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,” Hassan said in a statement. “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.”