Inside Story Americas

Abu Ghraib: A justice denied

As a court rules that crimes committed by US corporations abroad cannot be tried in the US, what are the implications?

Last Modified: 29 Jun 2013 14:51
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A United States court has decided that Iraqis allegedly tortured at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison cannot sue the defence contractor who employed their interrogators.

The Abu Ghraib prison scandal erupted during President George W Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 when graphic photographs taken by soldiers at the scene were leaked to the news media.

Normally, the ordinary rule is that anybody doing business here [in the US] is subject to the jurisdiction of our courts and the Supreme Court essentially decided to change that rule when it comes to grave human rights abuses.

Marco Simons, the legal director for EarthRights International

They showed naked inmates piled on top of each other in a prison cell block, inmates handcuffed to their cell bars and hooded and wired for electric shock, among other shocking scenes.

Among the detainees there were four men who were held at Abu Ghraib prison between 2003 and 2004. During that time they say they were stripped naked, electrocuted, beaten, choked and threatened with death. They were all released without charge.

They came to the US to seek accountabilty for the US military contractor, CACI International Inc, whose employees conducted interrogations and other tasks at the prison. CACI is a defence contracting firm based in Arlington, Virginia.

They then initiated the al-Shimari vs CACI lawsuit which was brought under Alien Tort Statute (ATS), but this week US district judge Gerald Bruce Lee threw out their case, saying that the Iraqis cannot sue the contractor in the US because the "alleged conduct giving rise to their claims occurred exclusively on foreign soil."

Judge Gerald Bruce Lee cited a lack of jurisdiction and a recent Supreme Court ruling to support his decision. The US district court judge in Alexandria drew from the Kiobel decision, saying: "Plaintiffs alleged that torture and war crimes occurred during their detention in Abu Ghraib … plaintiffs' ATS claims do not allege that any violations occurred in the United States or any of its territories. Therefore, on these facts, the court holds that Kiobel's bar against extraterritorial application of the ATS governs."

In that case a group of Nigerians sued Royal Dutch Shell, for aiding their government in committing human rights abuses.
In April, the Supreme Court ruled that since the foreign oil company acted overseas it cannot be sued in the US.

The ruling from chief justice John Roberts reads: Corporations are often present in many countries, and it would reach too far to say that mere corporate presence suffices. If congress were to determine otherwise, a statute more specific than the ATS would be required."

What are the wider implications of the ruling, now that military contractors play such a central role in US operations abroad and what precedent has been set for holding US corporations accountable for crimes committed overseas?

Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, discusses with guests: Shereef Akeel, one of the lead lawyers on the Abu Ghraib against CACI; and Marco Simons, the legal director for EarthRights International.

We did ask CACI to join our discussion but they did not respond.

"This ruling runs contrary to the nation's efforts to remedy the very wrongs that have tarnished our nation's image and I don't think that is the consequence that the Supreme Court had in mind when they made the Kiobel's decision."

-  Shereef Akeel, one of the lead lawyers for Abu Ghraib detainees


Al Jazeera
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