Skip to content Skip to footer

20 Years After Abu Ghraib, Its Victims Take Their Torturers to Court

Survivors exposed the violence of the “war on terror,” refusing to let it be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Inside the prisons at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, Iraq, May 2003

“My life before and after [Abu Ghraib] were very different,” Salah Hasan Nusaif Al-Ejaili testified in a Virginia courtroom on Monday, April 15, the beginning of the trial in the case of Al-Shimari v. CACI. Al-Ejaili, one of the three plaintiffs in the case, was an Al Jazeera journalist who was detained in November 2003 and held in the Iraq prison’s “hard site,” which was reserved for “high-value” detainees. On the witness stand, Al-Ejaili recounted scenes of horrific torture, including having his arms handcuffed behind him and attached to a pipe, being held naked in freezing conditions, and as a result of the torture, developing stomach pain so severe that at one point, black liquid started to come out of his mouth. After his release from Abu Ghraib in February 2004, Al-Ejaili described having many psychological problems, familial problems, losing confidence in himself and others, and trouble eating and sleeping.

Taking the witness stand virtually from Iraq, another survivor, Asa’ad Hamza Hanfoosh Al-Zuba’e, who was held for a year at Abu Ghraib, also detailed brutal torture at the prison. Through a Zoom screen in the courtroom, Al-Zuba’e revealed in detail some of the brutal torture that he was exposed to, including forced nudity and being forced to play with his genitals, having a black hood placed over his head and being dragged, getting cold water poured on him, and being told that “they were going to f**k him.”

If anyone — including the U.S. government and the corporation at the center of the lawsuit, CACI — thought this chapter of the “war on terror” would be easy to relegate to history as “mistakes” of the past, these harrowing testimonies revived the visceral images and stories of torture at Abu Ghraib, bringing them vividly into our present and the courtroom as if no time at all had elapsed.

As a Muslim and Arab professor, scholar and researcher who has written extensively about the targeting of Muslims in the war on terror, and in my role as executive director at Muslim Counterpublics Lab, I attended several days of the Al-Shimari v. CACI trial. Bearing witness to the survivors’ testimonies was powerful, including what was left unspoken: that their fight for accountability over the course of the last 16 years was not a matter of proving their humanity or appealing to the morality of those who perpetrated or played a role in the harm against them — but instead, it was an unequivocal demand for justice.

Abu Ghraib Exposed

Exactly 20 years ago today, CBS’s “60 Minutes II” broadcasted a segment on torture at Abu Ghraib, revealing for the first time the grotesque images of Iraqi prisoners being subjected to brutal torture, including being stripped and forced on top of each other into a pyramid shape, being tied and dragged on a leash naked, and being threatened with dogs.

Upon the release of the photos and in the midst of public outrage in the United States and across the globe, statements made by President George W. Bush and other administration officials quickly led to much of the U.S. populace believing that this case of torture was an anomaly.

Shortly after the photos came out, Secretary of State Colin Powell — who was pivotal to the U.S.’s efforts to justify its war on Iraq based on lies about weapons of mass destruction — told foreign leaders in response to the torture at Abu Ghraib that they should “watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing. Watch what a nation of values and character, a nation that believes in justice, does to right this kind of wrong. Watch how a nation such as ours will not tolerate such actions.” Regardless of Powell’s emphatic pleas for others to see the goodness of the U.S., anyone “watching America” would have distinctly observed one thing: the lack of accountability for Bush and other administration officials who condoned, facilitated and created the legal frameworks for torture. While the memories and trauma of torture continued to haunt Abu Ghraib survivors in the two decades since, federal government officials have long since gotten off the hook thanks to immunity provided them in the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The U.S. government, however, understood that a complete dereliction of accountability would not bode well for a country determined to rehabilitate its image as a champion of human rights. As such, in 2006, 11 U.S. soldiers were convicted of criminal charges based on their conduct at Abu Ghraib prison.

Corporate Complicity in Torture

CACI is a Virginia-based corporation that provides expertise and technology to various government agencies. The corporation describes itself as having “unwavering character” and prides itself on its standards of ethics and values such as responsibility and accountability. Now, the victims’ lawsuit is making that accountability real.

After the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, CACI was hired to conduct interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison. Allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison from the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International followed soon after the prison was taken over by Americans. On January 31, 2004, Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba was ordered to conduct an informal investigation into the Army’s 800th Military Police Brigade’s detention and internment operations, including allegations of detainee abuse. Taguba’s report was released in May 2004 alongside the images of the torture of Abu Ghraib. One of his conclusions aptly described what the pictures so callously revealed — namely, that “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees.” Unfortunately for CACI, its interrogators were named and implicated in the reports of abuse. Later in 2004, a report similarly calling attention to CACI — the Fay Jones report — cited CACI employees engaged in abusive behavior.

Even though the federal government managed to evade accountability, CACI would not be so lucky in its claims for derivative immunity. In 2008, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a civil suit in what would eventually become Al-Shimari v. CACI that alleged that interrogators employed by the corporation conspired with military police to torture detainees in order to “soften them up” for interrogations.

“The Abu Ghraib Effect”

In his book, The Abu Ghraib Effect, Stephen F. Eisenman asks, “[W]hat if the U.S. public and the amateur photographers at Abu Ghraib share a kind of moral blindness — let us call it the ‘Abu Ghraib effect’ that allows them to ignore, or even to justify, however partially or provisionally, the facts of degradation and brutality manifest in the pictures?”

While Eisenman’s book explores this question through art and visual culture, this question lends itself to a very different, yet obvious answer — namely that what he refers to as the “Abu Ghraib effect” was an entirely logical result of the narrative and legal infrastructure of the U.S. war on terror, that was built on the complete and utter dehumanization of Muslims.

Importantly, what made torture at Abu Ghraib possible was not just the individuals willing to enact brutality, but the rendering of Muslims and Arabs as a “torturable class.” Those who are seen as part of the “torturable class,” as Jessica Wolfendale writes, “must already be judged to lack the moral standing and dignity that would make torturing them impermissible, because the decision to torture a person involves a refusal to see the victim’s status as a person as setting any limits on what may be done to them.” Even worse is when the torture is justified or deemed necessary — as a way of physically and symbolically exorcising the “incivility” out of those constructed as the threat, as the Bush administration claimed.

Testimonial Injustice

What separates the torture at Abu Ghraib from other instances of torture at the hands of the U.S. government and military contractors is that the images made it impossible for the abuses to be denied. During the trial, CACI attorney John O’Connor acknowledged abuse at Abu Ghraib, while at the same time working to discredit the survivors on the witness stand. Despite the brutality that Al-Ejaili described in his testimony, O’Connor told the jury that the U.S. government had no official records of his interrogation. The assumption embedded in O’Connor’s statements was that the U.S. government — known to omit, conceal evidence of and outright lie about torture — was automatically more credible than a survivor’s testimony of interrogation and torture.

When individuals are tortured, their torturers often tell them that no one will believe their testimonies of the abuse they suffered. Though Al-Zuba’e’s testimony was detailed, O’Connor’s line of questioning resulted in Al-Zuba’e responding numerous times by saying “I don’t know.” Insofar as O’Connor was casting doubt on the believability of Al-Zuba’e’s testimony, his performance in the courtroom embodied the torturers’ threat.

Beyond the superficial challenges directed at survivors, the approach taken by the defendants demonstrated something more fundamental: Survivors are not “authorized” to break their silence and speak about their torture. When and if they do, their torturers will do everything in their power to discredit them.

In her book, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker writes about “testimonial injustice,” which she describes as “a kind of injustice in which someone is wronged specifically in her capacity as a knower.” Testimonial injustice accounts for the idea that discrepancies in whose testimony is believed and who has credibility are not accurately attributable to being mistakes, but are instead a matter of the identity of the person providing testimony, the context in which they are telling it and who the audience is. In places and spaces where justice is adjudicated, testimonial injustice becomes increasingly consequential. In the context of the war on terror and long-standing Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in the United States more generally where Muslims and Arabs have long been constructed in the West as uncivilized, inherently violent and rageful, it is not difficult to imagine that survivors (Abu Ghraib survivors in this case) with both identities could be perceived as lacking credibility. To this end, the role of testimonial injustice is critical to examine where parties such as the state and CACI have a vested interest in avoiding accountability to determine if and how they are working to undermine survivors’ credibility based on known prejudices and bigotry towards Muslims and Arabs.

Torture on Trial

While the decision in the Al-Shimari v. CACI trial was expected within two weeks since its starting date on April 15, on April 26 the jury remained deadlocked on the verdict. As a result, the U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema instructed jurors to return on April 29, telling the jury that “We don’t lightly declare a mistrial.”

As the jury continues deliberating the verdict, the importance of this case could not be clearer, especially considering that there has been a total evasion of accountability for any institution, corporate entity or civilian contractor for the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib. They could be made to pay $3 million in compensatory damages and $32 million in punitive damages if the jury makes a decision in the plaintiffs’ favor.

Beyond any damages provided to survivors, this case would hopefully set a precedent for corporate accountability, especially in the ongoing war on terror, which has been the most outsourced war in United States history.

Spanish American philosopher George Santayana is credited with the saying that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” In the United States, like many other countries with violent pasts (and ongoing state violence), history is actively and intentionally erased and swept under the rug, precisely so it can be repeated. But survivors of state violence — including the Iraqi plaintiffs in Al-Shimari v. CACI, Suhail Najim Abdullah Al Shimari, Asa’ad Hamza Hanfoosh Al-Zuba’e and Salah Hasan Nusaif Al-Ejaili — have courageously reminded us that the pursuit of justice and accountability in the face of state-sanctioned historical amnesia can and will change the trajectory of history, beyond and transcending the walls of any courtroom.