After 20 years, US jurors finally deliberate verdict for long-awaited Abu Ghraib torture trial

After 20 years, US jurors finally deliberate verdict for long-awaited Abu Ghraib torture trial
If the plaintiffs are successful, this could set a precedent for challenging corporate impunity for private military contractors abroad.
4 min read
Washington, DC
23 April, 2024
A US jury is deliberating on a case related to alleged torture in Iraq 20 years ago. [Getty]

Two decades after the release of infamous photos of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib being humiliated in US custody, victims of these acts are seeking justice in a case that could be decided in the coming days.

The trial of Al Shimari versus CACI, which began last week in federal court in northern Virginia, began jury deliberations on Monday. 

At issue is whether or not the contractor CACI Premier Technology is responsible for the violations, which plaintiffs say included beatings, electric shocks, food deprivation and sexual assault, with guards posing for pictures while smiling with the inmates in the nude with bags over their heads.

"We will have our day in court, and the story of Abu Ghraib will be told by me and other men who lived – and – survived it," Salah Hasan Al-Ejaili, one of the three plaintiffs, said in a public statement. The other two plaintiffs are Suhail Najim Abdullah Al Shimari and Asa'ad Hamza Hanfoosh Zuba'e.

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The Center for Constitutional Rights filed the federal lawsuit in 2008 but was repeatedly delayed. CACI tried to have it dismissed more than 20 times and then sought a Supreme Court review, which was denied. Despite the Supreme Court narrowing three times since the suit was filed the scope of the Alien Tort Statute, a federal law that allows non-US nationals to sue in US court, the case has survived.

Though the plaintiffs successfully brought the case to court, the repeated delays might have served a purpose for CACI in allowing the story to die down. The federal court in Alexandria on Monday was unusually quiet, without the throngs of demonstrators typically seen at such historic trials, possibly a sign that the public interest in the story has waned after two decades.

Despite its relatively low profile compared with the explicit photos that shocked the world 20 years ago, this case is a rare example of challenging the corporate impunity privileges of private military contractors.

On Monday, in their closing arguments, CACI's defence team suggested that the suit should have been against the US government and those who actively abused them. The plaintiff argued that the company should be responsible for its supervisory role at Abu Ghraib.

If the plaintiffs are successful, this case could potentially set a precedent in how a territory's lack of sovereignty is used to avoid accountability.

"Using Al Shimari to establish a suspended-sovereignty exception to Kiobel would also set a valuable precedent: contractors and other private corporations involved in military occupation and reconstruction would be liable for harm they cause," according to a 2015 article in the Harvard Law Review, referring to a lawsuit by Nigerian citizens against Royal Dutch Shell, who allegedly cracked down on peaceful resistance to excessive oil extraction.

"Recognising this exception would fill a gap in the law that leaves many contractors free from civil liability... Eliminating these 'legal black holes where no law applies at all' would thus serve the interests of justice while continuing to respect the purposes of the presumption against extraterritoriality," the law article continued.

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These legal black holes have long been a concern for rights advocates, who wonder what other violations could be occurring under the radar without the notorious photo documentation of Abu Ghraib.

"This lawsuit is a belated but very important part of the pursuit of justice for the victims of the Abu Ghraib torture abuse scandal. The torture that occurred at Abu Ghraib was just one of the few examples of the torture that we know about among many incidents of torture that we have never been able to fully uncover," Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The New Arab.

"To the extent that private contractors can also be held accountable for their alleged involvement in torture, that's a good thing for the victims, and it's a good thing for our nation. It's never too late to hold the people responsible for torture accountable," he added.

Jury deliberations for the trial are planned to resume on Wednesday. It is unclear how long they will take before reaching a verdict.