A federal appeals court in the United States has found that four Iraqis who were previously held in Abu Ghraib prison can sue the US defence contractor CACI International over allegations that its staff were involved in their torture in 2003 and 2004.

The three judge panel at the fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, made the unanimous decision on Monday, overturning an earlier decision by a lower court.

Employees of CACI International, formerly known as Blackwater, are accused of encouraging and directing torture alongside US soldiers, partly to ‘soften up’ detainees for questioning.

Some detainees claim they endured physical and sexual abuse, infliction of electric shocks, and mock executions.

Baher Azmy, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents the detainees, said the ruling is significant even though it does not deal with the merits of the case.

"We hope that the victims of torture at Abu Ghraib finally will get to tell their story in U.S. courts," Azmy said.

Need for accountability

Monday's decision has the potential to expand legal liability for contractors who work with and undertake sensitive tasks on behalf of US troops outside the country.

Anyone who commits egregious human rights violations should be held accountable, and this decision puts US companies on notice that they could still face liability.

Martin Flaherty, professor at Fordham University School of Law ,

"Anyone who commits egregious human rights violations should be held accountable, and this decision puts US companies on notice that they could still face liability," Martin Flaherty, a professor at Fordham University School of Law who signed a brief supporting the detainees, said in an interview.

According to court documents, CACI claims that most of the alleged abuse was approved by the then-US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and incorporated into rules of engagement by military commanders at the prison.

The appeals court said the judge will have to gather more evidence about whether the civilian interrogators had some degree of autonomy or were directly controlled by the military.

Shocking photos depicting soldiers inflicting pain and humiliation on detainees at Abu Ghraib emerged in 2004. An earlier investigation by US army Major General Antonio Taguba found that ‘numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees’ and that the ‘systemic and illegal abuse of detainees was intentionally perpetrated by several members of the military police guard force’.

Criminal charges were brought against 11 low-ranking guards, including former army reserve specialist Lynndie England, who was shown smiling in photographs while posing next to naked prisoners being submitted to sexual abuse. She was paroled in 2007.

The prison west of Baghdad became a potent negative symbol of the US occupation to many Iraqis after evidence emerged of detainee abuse by American soldiers at the facility.

Source: Agencies