Stunning Victory as US Court Rules That Contractors’ Treatment of Prisoners at Abu Ghraib Constituted “Torture, War Crimes, and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment”


An image of the crucified figure from Abu Ghraib that I found on a 2009 Uprising Radio page.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


It has taken ten years, but on Wednesday (February 21), a US judge, District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, ruled that “the treatment of three Iraqi individuals formerly detained at the infamous ‘hard site’ at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq constitutes torture, war crimes, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, based on a thorough review of US domestic and international law.”

The victory was described in a press release by the Center for Constitutional Rights, who, with other lawyers, first submitted the case ten long years ago, under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which “allows non-US citizens to sue for violations of international law committed abroad that ‘touch and concern’ the United States. I wrote about it back in September, when Judge Brinkema allowed the case to proceed.

As I also explained at the time:

In the long legal journey to this important day, as CCR stated, “the Fourth Circuit denied CACI’s attempt to have the case dismissed under the ‘political question’ doctrine” in October 2016, and in June this year the District Court “affirmed that war crimes, torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are well-recognized and definable norms and thus fall within the court’s jurisdiction” under the Alien Tort Statute. The court then “ordered both parties to brief whether the record supports a finding that the plaintiffs suffered these violations,” and, as CCR noted, “Shortly after, CACI moved to dismiss the case,” the move that has just been turned down.

This week’s ruling also made it clear that the three men — Suhail Al Shimari, Asa’ad Al-Zuba’e and Salah Al-Ejaili — “have sufficiently alleged that employees of private military contractor CACI Premier Technology conspired to commit and aided and abetted these crimes,” as CCR’s press release also explained.

CACI is the defendant in the case, Al Shimari v. CACI, and, as CCR described it, its lawyers have “repeatedly argued that, even if its employees were involved in torture and other abuse, the company is shielded from liability.” As CCR added, however, Judge Brinkema’s 54-page ruling “definitively rejected that position, as well as attempts by certain Bush-era officials to water down the prohibition against torture, and allowed the lawsuit to proceed against CACI.”

As CCR also explained, “While a number of low-level military officers were court-martialed over their roles in the abuse, CACI has gone unpunished — and continues to reap millions of dollars in government contracts — even though US military investigators long ago concluded that CACI interrogators conspired with the US soldiers who were later court martialed to ‘soften up’ detainees for interrogations, according to statements by co-conspirators.”

As CCR also noted, a US Army General, Antonio M. Taguba, in a ground-breaking report in 2004, referred to the treatment as “sadistic, blatant, and wanton” criminal abuses.

CCR also noted that Judge Brinkema’s opinion included a detailed account of what happened to Suhail Al Shimari, Asa’ad Al-Zuba’e, and Salah Al-Ejaili, which included:

[being] subjected to repeated stress positions, including at least one that made [Plaintiff Al-Ejaili] vomit black liquid; sexually-related humiliation; disruptive sleeping patterns and long periods of being kept naked or without food or water; and multiple instances of being threatened with dogs … being doused with hot and cold liquids … sexual assault and threats of rape; being left in a cold shower until [Plaintiff Zuba’e] was unable to stand; dog bites and repeated beatings, including with sticks and to the genitals … at least one [stress position] that lasted an entire day and resulted in [Zuba’e] urinating and defecating on himself; and threats that his family would be brought to Abu Ghraib … systematic beatings … with a baton and rifle, [being] hit against the wall; [being] forced to kneel on sharp stones, causing lasting damage to [Plaintiff Al Shimari’s] legs; … being kept in a dark cell and with loud music nearby; threats of being shot … electric shocks; being dragged around the prison by a rope tied around [Al Shimari’s] neck; and having fingers inserted into [Al Shimari’s] rectum.

Given this list, it is unsurprising that the Court concluded, “it is clear that the abuse suffered by plaintiffs was intended to inflict severe pain or suffering and rises to the level of torture.”

However, as I noted just two days ago, to date it has been impossible to get a US court to confirm that torture took place in any of the detention sites established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — in large part, because President Obama blocked efforts to do so via the “state secrets doctrine” (see the Jeppesen case here), and last August, when James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, former military psychologists who had developed the torture program for the CIA, had been told that several survivors of the rendition and torture program, and the family of another man, Gul Rahman, who had died in Afghanistan, were to be allowed to challenge them in a court, they settled out of court instead — for a significant, but undisclosed amount.

I discussed these previous cases in an article looking at the potential for the International Criminal Court (the ICC) to launch an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan, including those committed by US forces, and also “crimes committed on the territory of other countries that are a member of the ICC where the crimes have a nexus to those committed in Afghanistan, such as Romania, Poland and Lithuania — all known to have hosted CIA black sites.”

It is still to be fervently hoped that the ICC investigation goes ahead — because, as the academic Mark Kersten noted, to do so would be “brave and courageous — exactly the kind of thing the ICC was supposed to investigate” — but in the meantime this ruling by Judge Brinkema means that she will have a place in the history books, not just for this ruling, but also, I hope, because it leads to some genuine accountability on US soil for what took place in America’s torture prisons around the world.

As CCR’s Legal Director Baher Azmy said after the ruling, “The decision is a historic judicial rebuke to the Bush administration’s torture paradigm, which had sought to evade the well-established prohibitions against torture, and is one of the clearest statements in the post-9/11 era that victims of torture and grave human rights abuses can access the courts for a remedy.” He added, “The court confirmed what was plain to the eye: that the horrific treatment our clients endured at Abu Ghraib was unlawful and that, in a country operating under the rule of law, those responsible can be held accountable.”

Note: For more information, visit CCR’s case page.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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21 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    So here’s some very good news, and a sign of how long it can take to fight for justice and to glimpse victory. It’s taken ten years for three men tortured in Abu Ghraib to get a US court to confirm that they were tortured, and to allow them to proceed with a claim against CACI Premier Technology, whose interrogators “conspired with the US soldiers who were later court martialed to ‘soften up’ detainees for interrogations,” as described by the Center for Constitutional Rights. The judge allowing the case to proceed is District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, and there is a place in the history books for her, as well as for all the lawyers pursuing justice for these three Iraqi men – Suhail Al Shimari, Asa’ad Al-Zuba’e and Salah Al-Ejaili – for the last ten years.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    C-r-a-z-y that it took so long, I mean it’s common sense that it was pure evil what they all did there.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Lorraine Barlett wrote:

    Great news!!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Very good news!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Brigid Mary Oates wrote:

    Great news .. I was sickened … how long these things take … this is why we should always challenge xx Thank you for sharing this Andy x

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan McLucas wrote:

    Great news! Does this mean that they can now sue for damages, since it’s been established that it was torture and that they’re not protected by some fool “political question” doctrine?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Jessy Mumpo wrote:

    Thank goodness

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Rick Burgess wrote:

    F*ck yeah!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Tashi, Lorraine, Natalia, Brigid, Susan, Jessy and Rick. So yes, Susan, as I understand it, they can now sue for damages, although I do find it difficult, as a lay person, to understand every aspect of this case. It seems particularly complicated.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan McLucas wrote:

    Andy, Thanks. That’s what I was guessing, but it’s good to have your idea on it, since I’ll be trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about tomorrow and hopefully some press shows up. I’m excited that some people in Berlin are standing in front of the US embassy too, on this 115th anniversary of our seizing Guantanamo from Cuba.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Good timing, Susan.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    I don’t think there is a legal precedent for suing under these unusual circumstances. It may be up to the court to establish it, and hopefully a lawsuit for damages can be brought successfully, although no amount of money will ever fully compensate these men for what they’ve suffered and lost. Still, it’s a huge legal breakthrough.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your analysis, Mary. I certainly hope that having grounds to proceed means that the CACI agents will be found guilty of conspiracy and then damages can be sought. I’m hoping that Mitchell and Jessen settling out of court might be a useful precedent.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    This is a fair judicial decision, if there are such judges in America, then democracy can be saved. Thank you Andy, this is very good news!

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Aleksey. Good to hear from you.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Great news for the weekend!

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Ann. Yes, good news is so rare that it’s important to celebrate it. Imagine – ten years just to get to the point where a judge confirms that torture is torture!

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Kai Sunburn wrote:

    Is this the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice? …
    .. I have to pause here and take in all those lives so brutally disrupted – the sorrow for so many lost years, respect for the dignity of many of those men upon release – and deep gratitude for your tireless work, Andy.
    Thank you for sharing this information.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re most welcome, Kai. Great to hear from you!

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    This indeed Andy is great news. xx

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, one to be savoured, Lindis!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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