NEW YORK, Apr 16 (IPS) - In a ruling that could have widespread implications for government contractors overseas, a federal court has concluded that four former Abu Ghraib detainees, who were tortured and later released without charge, can sue the U.S. military contractor who was involved in conducting prisoner interrogations for the Pentagon in Iraq.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, denied a motion to dismiss the detainees' claims by the contractor, CACI International. The Arlington, Virginia-based company is a major contractor to the Defence Department.
The former detainees allege multiple violations of U.S. law, including torture, war crimes and civil conspiracy.
The suit alleges that the CACI defendants not only participated in physical and mental abuse of the detainees, but also destroyed documents, videos and photographs; prevented the reporting of the torture and abuse to the International Committee of the Red Cross; hid detainees and other prisoners from the International Committee of the Red Cross; and misled non-conspiring military and government officials about the state of affairs at the Iraq prisons.
CACI sought immunity against the lawsuits and claimed that the actions of its contract interrogators at Abu Ghraib were beyond judicial review. Court martial and other testimony from the soldiers convicted of abuse has linked company personnel to the abuse.
The court rejected CACI's effort to shield itself from accountability by invoking the "political question doctrine."
The court reasoned, "While it is true that the events at Abu Ghraib pose an embarrassment to this country, it is the misconduct alleged and not the litigation surrounding that misconduct that creates the embarrassment. This Court finds that the only potential for embarrassment would be if the Court declined to hear these claims on political questions grounds."
The court found "The policy is clear: what happened at Abu Ghraib was wrong."
The court also ruled, "The fact that CACI's business involves conducting interrogations on the government's behalf is incidental; courts can and do entertain civil suits against government contractors for the manner in which they carry out government business. CACI conveniently ignores the long line of cases where private plaintiffs were allowed to bring tort actions for wartime injuries."
The former detainees began their lawsuit in 2004. CACI is appealing the court's verdict.
Attorney Katherine Gallagher of the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), one of the Iraqis' lawyers, told IPS, "The court's decision that the case against CACI can proceed is a big step forward in the fight against impunity and the victims' quest for justice. We remain hopeful that the victims will soon have their day in court."
CACI International Inc. criticised the court ruling. "From day one, CACI has rejected the outrageous allegations against the company in this lawsuit and continues to do so," the company said in a statement.
"After five years and numerous investigations, no CACI employee or former employee has been charged with any misconduct in connection with CACI's interrogation work in Iraq," the company said.
Suspicion of CACI's role in abusive interrogations dates back to 2004, when Amnesty International (AI) began a dialogue with the company and with other government contractors who were involved in questioning detainees at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
In the first of a number of letters from Amnesty's Executive Director Dr. William F. Schulz, AI expressed its "concern over the human rights abuses committed in the Abu Ghraib prison facility" and asked for "clarification of your company's human rights policies and practices."
The letter continued, "Your company has performed services contracts with the U.S. military that have led to public allegations of complicity in abuses against detainees by some of your employees. We hope and expect that CACI will support and facilitate public investigations and help bring persons found responsible to justice."
In response, Dr. J.P London, CACI chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer wrote, "We join you in condemning the obvious abuses apparently committed at Abu Ghraib, and we look forward to seeing all wrongdoers brought to justice. If that group happens to include one or more of our employees, those wrongdoers should be subject to appropriate punishment along with all others involved."
London said, "We support and are cooperating fully with all U.S. government investigations into this matter of which we are aware or have been contacted."
"We do not condone, tolerate or in any way endorse illegal behavior on the part of our employees or those with whom we work while conducting business in any circumstances at any time," London responded.
When CACI's name first became linked with abuses at Abu Ghraib, the company mounted a massive public relations campaign, including the publication of a book by Dr. London, "Our Good Name." In speeches at the time, Dr. London accused the media of abandoning the principle of "innocent until proven guilty."
CACI International ranks No. 17 on Washington Technology's 2008 Top 100 list of the largest federal government prime contractors.