Nine years ago today, photos from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were released to the public. The images are indelible: Groups of prisoners, naked except for hoods covering their heads are piled on top of one another; soldiers grin and give thumbs-up to the camera; one holds a naked prisoner on a leash. In the most infamous photo, a hooded man balances on a cardboard box, arms outstretched, electrical wires attached to his hands.
Lesser known than the torture at Abu Ghraib is who was running it. As military investigations and court martial records have shown, private civilian contractors expressly instructed soldiers and civilian interpreters to “soften up” prisoners – code for torture and abuse. While some of the low-level soldiers involved in the abuses were punished, nine years after the notorious photos exposed these crimes to the world, the civilian interrogators who ordered the abuse have not been prosecuted. They have not even been investigated. Instead, the companies that supplied the interrogators and interpreters continued to reap billions in federal contracts and saw their stock prices rise.
The only accountability that survivors of torture have been able to obtain against these private corporations has come through civil litigation. Recently, in a case called Al-Quraishi v. Nakhla, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), 71 survivors of US torture received a $5.28 million settlement – the first time a private military contractor has been held accountable in any fashion for its role in torture. Another CCR case, Al Shimari v. CACI, filed on behalf of four Abu Ghraib survivors of torture, is currently proceeding in federal court. With the discovery phase of the litigation completed, Al Shimari may mark the first time a case against a private military contractor for torture goes to trial.
Al Shimari has taken on special importance in the wake of the Supreme Court’s April 17 ruling in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, which limited the ability of US courts to address human rights abuses committed abroad. Kiobel requires defendants in cases filed under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which has been used for decades by victims of serious human rights violations to hold their tormentors accountable, to have a closer connection to the United States than did the defendants in Kiobel – foreign companies who aided and abetted foreign officials to seriously abuse foreign plaintiffs on foreign sovereign territory. A fitting post-Kiobel ATS defendant might be, for example, a US corporation that committed war crimes, including torture, in a detention center and country under US occupation, and which aided and abetted and conspired with US military officials to commit those serious violations – such as CACI International, for the abuses on its watch shown in those notorious photos from Abu Ghraib. The trial in Al Shimari will be a powerful demonstration that, post-Kiobel, US corporations can still be held accountable in US courts for egregious human rights violations they commit abroad.
This is just as important today as it was nine years ago when those pictures first exposed torture at Abu Ghraib. The so-called “War on Terror” is the most outsourced war in history, with scores of companies profiting from the privatization of yet another government function – usually the same companies who spent millions lobbying for more money to be invested in war. (And given the number of former Department of Defense officials making six-figure salaries sitting on their boards, the influence these companies have in our decisions to go to war in the first place cannot be overstated.) But a profit motive is practically an incentive for privately-contracted interrogators to torture because bad intelligence carries the same price tag as good intelligence. Whether they are on a government payroll or a corporate one, we need to hold accountable those who have participated in war crimes.
A decade after the war started and nine years since the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos, the movement to hold the United States (and its contractors) accountable for the conduct and consequences of the Iraq War is growing. Iraqis and US veterans are coming together to demand their right to heal from a war they say is not over for them, as they continue to suffer the long-lasting effects of the war and while US companies continue to pillage Iraq’s natural resources. They say they cannot heal from the war until there is accountability, and that must include holding private military contractors to account for their role in going to war in the first place and for the horrific human rights abuses committed during the war. Without this accountability, if torture remains profitable and without consequence for private contractors, we can look forward to a private torture industry as booming as the private war industry.