FALLS CHURCH, Va. — A federal judge has again refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by former Abu Ghraib inmates against a military contractor they accuse of being complicit in torture at the infamous Iraqi prison.
The horrific mistreatment of prisoners there two decades ago sparked international outrage when photos became public of smiling U.S. soldiers posing in front of abused prisoners.
Virginia-based CACI, which supplied interrogators at the prison, has long denied that it engaged in torture, and has tried more than a dozen times to have the lawsuit dismissed. The case was originally filed in 2008 and still has not gone to trial.
The most recent effort to dismiss the case focused on a 2021 Supreme Court case that restricted companies' international liability. In that case, the high court tossed out a lawsuit against a subsidiary of chocolate maker Nestle after it was accused of complicity in child slavery on African cocoa farms.
CACI argued that the Nestle case is one of several in recent years in which the Supreme Court has narrowed the scope of the Alien Tort Statute, an 18th-century law under which the plaintiffs filed their lawsuit.
The opinion Monday by U.S. Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria, Virginia, is currently under seal; only her order rejecting CACI's motion is public. But at an earlier hearing, the judge told CACI's lawyers that she believed they were overstating the significance of the Nestle case.
Baher Azmy, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, the law firm representing the Abu Ghraib plaintiffs, declined to discuss the opinion in detail because it was under seal. But he said Brinkema reiterated her view that “the law didn't change as radically as CACI suggests.”
In a previous hearing, Brinkema said there is evidence implicating CACI in the torture regime at Abu Ghraib, including an email from a CACI employee assigned to Abu Ghraib that she described as a potential “smoking gun.”
The email, according to Brinkema, was sent by a CACI employee to his boss outlining abuses he had witnessed. The employee apparently resigned in protest, the judge said.
Brinkema said she was “amazed” that no one at CACI seemed to follow up on the employee’s concerns.
CACI lawyers have disputed that the email, which is not publicly available, is incriminating.
CACI has denied that any of its employees engaged in or sanctioned torture. And the three inmates who filed the suit acknowledge that they were never directly assaulted or tortured by any CACI employees.
But the lawsuit alleges that CACI was complicit and aided and abetted the torture by setting up the conditions under which soldiers brutalized inmates.
CACI’s legal arguments are just the most recent in a string of challenges to the lawsuit.
Earlier, CACI argued that because it was working at the U.S. government’s behest, it had immunity from a lawsuit just as the government would enjoy immunity. But Brinkema ruled that when it comes to fundamental violations of international norms like those depicted at Abu Ghraib, the government enjoys no immunity, and neither does a government contractor.
A status hearing is now set for September. Azmy said he is confident the case will go to trial, even after 15 years of delay.
In a written statement, one of the plaintiffs who says he was tortured at Abu Ghraib also expressed optimism.
“I have stayed patient and hopeful during the two years we have waited for this decision — and throughout the nearly two decades since I was abused at Abu Ghraib — that one day I would achieve justice and accountability in a U.S. court," said plaintiff Salah Al-Ejaili, who now lives in Sweden.
In the lawsuit, Al-Ejaili alleges that he was beaten, left naked for extended periods of time, threatened with dogs and forced to wear women's underwear, among other abuses.
A CACI spokeswoman, Lorraine Corcoran, declined to comment Monday.
In 2013, a different contractor agreed to pay $5.28 million to 71 former Abu Ghraib inmates.