A panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Friday a lawsuit against private military contractor CACI Premier Technology, Inc. (CACI) for the corporation’s role in torture and other inhumane treatment at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. A lower court had dismissed the case, ruling that CACI’s responsibility for its established role in the torture was a “political question” to be left to the discretion of the political branches and unreviewable by the courts, and that a “cloud of ambiguity” surrounds the definition of torture. This was the fourth time the case has been before the court of appeals.
“There is no question that torture is unlawful under domestic, military, and international law. The only issue in this case is whether CACI will be held accountable – or treated with impunity – for its role in torture at Abu Ghraib,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Baher Azmy. “Today’s decision reaffirms the role of the courts to assess illegality, including torture, and we are optimistic this case will finally move forward and our clients will have their day in court.”
In its ruling, the Court rejected CACI’s argument that its conduct was beyond the reach of the courts. As the concurring judge emphasized, “It is beyond the power of even the President to declare [torture] lawful…. The determination of specific violations of law is constitutionally committed to the courts, even if that law touches military affairs.” The court concluded, “the military cannot lawfully exercise its authority by directing a contractor to engage in unlawful activity.”
CCR lawyers said the lower court’s ruling was essentially a return to the widely discredited Bush-era legal theories of Torture Memo author John Yoo. Constitutional scholars, military officers, and human rights groups submitted briefs in support of reinstating the lawsuit.
Azmy continued, “As with the problems that arise when private corporations run prisons, accountability is particularly important in this case where serious abuses were carried out by a for-profit corporation that made millions of dollars for its work at Abu Ghraib.”
U.S. military investigators concluded that several CACI interrogators conspired with U.S. soldiers, who were later court martialed, to “soften” detainees for interrogations, and that this contributed to “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses.” At Abu Ghraib, CCR’s four clients in the case were subjected to electric shocks, sexual violence, forced nudity, broken bones, and deprivation of oxygen, food, and water.
Salah Hassan, one of the plaintiffs in the long-running case, reacted to the news: “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. 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.”
Al Shimari v. Premier Technology was filed in June 2008 under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows non-citizens to sue for human rights violations committed abroad. In 2014, the Fourth Circuit overturned a lower-court ruling that would have barred the Abu Ghraib survivors from accessing U.S. courts to sue U.S. corporations involved in torture. The Fourth Circuit reversed, determining that the case sufficiently “touch[es] and concern[s]” the United States “with sufficient force” to overcome the “presumption against extraterritorial application” of the ATS recognized by the Supreme Court in 2013.