Shereef Akeel, 48, works May 6 in his Troy, Mich. law office. Nearly a decade after he started fighting for plaintiffs who say they were abused by American personnel at abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Akeel is still at it, with what could be a pivotal hearing about to play out in northern Virginia. (Kathleen Galligan / Detroit Free Press)
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WASHINGTON — After nearly a decade of chasing justice for abuses committed at Abu Ghraib prison, a Troy, Mich., lawyer and his colleagues face a pivotal hearing Friday that could decide whether their Iraqi clients ever see the inside of an American courtroom.
Since 2004, Shereef Akeel has been fighting to compensate detainees for the emotional, physical and sexual abuses alleged at the notorious Iraqi prison at the hands of American personnel after the invasion the previous year.
To do so, he has invoked a 1789 law that allows violations of international law to be heard by U.S. judges and juries.
In recent weeks, however, a U.S. Supreme Court decision limited the scope of that law, the Alien Tort Statute, potentially putting the case at risk.
The contractor that Akeel’s clients claim was complicit in their treatment — CACI Premier Technology of Virginia — is arguing for dismissal, not least because three of the men have been mysteriously kept from flying to the U.S. for depositions and medical exams.
In March, as the men prepared to board a plane in Baghdad bound for the U.S., they were ordered out of line. Some still-unknown U.S. official or agency insisted they not be allowed to fly, though they had visas and boarding passes. They have been unable to travel to the U.S. since, even though the judge has made his feelings known that they need to submit to questioning in person.
“I feel like we’re riding on a ship that’s got rocks (to navigate) all over the place,” said Akeel, 48, who in nine years since the Detroit Free Press first reported on his efforts to find detainees and represent them has seen cases consolidated, transferred and dismissed, even as he has changed firms, taken out personal loans and held fund-raisers to help pay for his various lawsuits.
“We’re close now,” he said. “We’re two months from finally getting this through.”
CACI PT provided interrogators at Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad prison where Iraqis swept up by U.S. forces were detained, in some cases for years. Abuses by military personnel came to light in a “60 Minutes” broadcast in 2004, and reports of rape and torture — along with photos showing prisoners on leashes and stripped detainees piled next to smiling soldiers — sparked international outrage.
One military report found “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses,” and it and others led to more than a dozen people being relieved from duty and several being court-martialed. But the role of contractors, if any, has been a murkier question.
CACI has argued to U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in Arlington, Va., that there is no evidence that the company is responsible for what occurred at Abu Ghraib.
And while military reports mentioned specific contractors, including some of those at CACI, prosecutors — who court-martialed military personnel — never took any action against employees of CACI or any other contractor.
Company officials even produced a book, “Our Good Name,” about its efforts to defend its reputation, even as other cases against it withered. This one, however, has managed to survive.
In it, Akeel’s four clients claim they were rounded up without cause and subjected to electric shocks, stripped and kept naked, beaten with batons, threatened with dogs and forced into cages. One said he was sexually assaulted by a woman at the prison.
They maintain CACI employees “directed and caused much of the egregious torture and abuse” at Abu Ghraib.
CACI, on the other hand, said the men have yet to allege “a single contact” with a specific CACI employee. Instead, the company said, the men wrongly want to “hold the CACI defendants liable on a co-conspiracy theory for the conduct of others.”
One hopeful victory
Akeel’s involvement dates to 2004, when an Iraqi named Saleh, who had made it to Dearborn, Mich., came to see him with a tale of imprisonment, of being stripped naked and having a rope tied to his genitals. The lawyer didn’t know what to make of it, knowing only — as a Muslim himself, albeit one born to Egyptian parents in California and raised in southeast Michigan — that such open talk about one’s body does not come easily to men of his faith.
“He said it was in Abu Ghraib, and I said, ‘What’s that?’” Akeel said. Two weeks later, the story came out on “60 Minutes,” leading to Saleh’s suit and others.
Akeel, with the help of a former schoolmate who was working in Iraq, traveled to the Middle East to begin looking for and interviewing detainees with an eye toward filing federal lawsuits.
The military was largely protected from suit. Then, in 2009, a District of Columbia Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit brought by more than 250 Iraqi plaintiffs against CACI and another contractor, L-3 Services. The decision found that many of the same battlefield exemptions that protected the military extended to contractors as well. Alien tort claims were limited to “state” actors, meaning nations themselves.
But there was a victory as well: Early this year, a $5 million settlement involving 71 detainees was reported. As with the other cases, however, the plaintiffs never saw the inside of a courtroom.
“This stands to be the only one that may actually go to trial and hold individuals from, in this case, a private corporation, responsible,” said Baher Azmy, legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been working alongside Akeel since early on. “I think it’s incredibly important that these plaintiffs have the opportunity to tell their story in an open courtroom in the United States.”
A no-fly roadblock
First, several issues will have to be decided by the judge, including whether the Supreme Court’s recent decision that the Alien Tort Statute does not apply to actions taken in other sovereign nations negates the case. Akeel and his colleagues are arguing it doesn’t, especially since the U.S. was effectively in control of Iraq at the time of the Abu Ghraib abuses.
Laura Pitter, an adviser to Human Rights Watch in New York, said if any case deserves to survive the decision, it’s one like this, since “all the conduct occurred in Iraq, which was governed by the United States.”
CACI’s lawyer, William Koegel Jr., of Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, said in a filing Wednesday that the Supreme Court decision means the statute cannot be used to settle wartime violations outside the U.S., and that Iraq remained a sovereign nation even when it was under the control of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was an instrument not only of the U.S., but of the United Kingdom and 38 other nations as well
The larger question could be whether the claims of three of the men, Suhail Najim Abdullah Al Shimari, Taha Yaseen Arraq Rashid and Asaad Hamza Hanfoosh Al-Zubae, should be dismissed because of their inability to come to the U.S.
CACI has argued against a video deposition, saying language barriers make it impossible and that it’s important to put documents in front of the men and have them submit to medical exams.
The company has argued that, given the delay, their claims should be dismissed.
That would greatly simplify the case, reducing it to that of a fourth plaintiff, Salah Hasan Nsaif Al-Ejaili, who lives in Qatar and has been to the U.S. for his depositions and exams.
As for why the others aren’t being allowed to travel to the U.S., CACI’s lawyers claim in court filings it is because they are, simply, “known or suspected terrorists,” inferring from their absence — as well as from their case files — that despite the plaintiffs’ claims to the contrary, these aren’t simple farmers or sheep herders, but individuals who must be on the government’s secret no-fly list.
Akeel and his colleagues reject those claims, noting the prisoners’ eventual release from Abu Ghraib suggests their innocence, a suggestion CACI calls “pure fiction.” Even if it is, it leaves open the question about conditions at Abu Ghraib, however.
The men are still trying to get clearance to travel and, at least until now, government agencies including the Department of Homeland Security have refused, on national security grounds, to discuss whether they are or are not on a no-fly watch list.
Akeel and the others are looking for a court order for the information and asking the judge not to dismiss the case if they still can’t get here.
Both sides have been aggressive in pushing their arguments, knowing this could prove a significant case if it goes to trial.
Akeel said his clients can never understand why he and the others are spending so much time on this, even as he tries to explain to them his feeling that, in the U.S., wrongs such as the one they say were committed must be righted.
A lot has changed in nine years. One of his kids is now in college, his practice has moved, the debts have piled up. Now there’s just this case remaining.
“I would give anything,” Akeel said, “just to be able to get in a courtroom.”