While the latest reports investigating the widely condemned events at Abu Ghraib prison attempt to close the book on the Pentagon’s culpability with a somber critique, new evidence gathered for a class action lawsuit filed against two U.S.-based private contractors could prove that the scandal at Abu Ghraib was far from an isolated series of incidents perpetrated by a few rowdy “bad apples” working the night shift during Ramadan.
An attorney representing former detainees says his recent fact-finding mission to Baghdad uncovered dozens of cases of physical and psychological abuse, sexual humiliation, religious desecration and rape in ten U.S.-run prisons throughout occupied Iraq.
The NewStandard spoke with Michigan-based attorney Shereef Akeel, who interviewed some 50 former detainees about their time and treatment in U.S. custody. Part of the legal team behind a class action lawsuit against the firms for their employees’ involvement in prison abuse at U.S.-run facilities in Iraq, the former immigration lawyer found himself traveling to meet face-to-face with the people he is representing in the American court system.
His team has documented abuse dating from July 2003 to as recently as last month, when an Iraqi boy just 15 years old says his captors at an American facility raped him. “He was told to go on all fours naked and was sodomized from behind,” Akeel conveyed the 15-year-old’s testimony. “He said they made him dance and he was crying.”
A number of the incidents Akeel and his colleagues have recorded took place between January and July of this year. Emerging evidence that torture in U.S. facilities continues months after the Abu Ghraib and other torture cases were revealed – most of those having taken place in late 2003 and dismissed as the results of oversights corrected since – could spell major problems for the U.S. government and military.
Akeel and his colleagues are working in concert with the Center for Constitutional Rights to sue the U.S. companies CACI International Inc. and Titan Corp., which were respectively contracted to provide interrogators and translators to support the American military’s efforts to obtain information from “security detainees” – those thought to be involved in resisting the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The Center for Constitutional Rights is a privately funded legal center that litigates on behalf of social movements and causes.
For its part, CACI International said in a press statement issued about the case: “CACI rejects and denies the allegations of the suit as being a malicious recitation of false statements and intentional distortions.” The company added in its defense, “CACI has never entered into a conspiracy with the government, or anyone else, to perpetrate abuses of any kind.” CACI also called the allegations of abuse “ill-informed” and “slanderous.”
Titan Corp. spokesperson Wil Williams told The NewStandard his company’s employees at U.S.-run facilities in Iraq adhere strictly to their role as translators and are prohibited by company policy from engaging with prisoners in any other capacity. He said the class action lawsuit naming Titan is “baseless” and that Titan will “vigorously defend [against] it.” He said it is “against company policy for any [employee] to engage in or observe” abusive behavior, and expressed confidence that had any Titan personnel so much as witnessed unlawful behavior, they would have reported it.
When asked if the witnesses identified the perpetrators as U.S. military, mercenaries, Iraqis, private translators or others, Akeel sighed. “Honestly, the line was so blurred, and they were crossed all the time,” he said. According to the testimony Akeel has collected, interrogators often donned U.S. military uniforms, assailants entered cells naked or approached victims from behind, and at least one translator wielded an electrical stun device.
Williams was unaware that interpreters, whether representing Titan or not, were being accused of being in possession of any such devices. “A linguist is not supposed to be handling weapons,” he said, adding that it is “beyond our imagination” that Titan employees would engage in abusive activities.
Regardless of the perpetrators’ national or ethnic origins, Akeel and his clients hold the U.S. military personnel who were involved in unlawful incidents and the corporations named in the suit responsible for abuse carried out in prisons controlled by the U.S. military.
During the course of his investigation in Iraq, Akeel said, clear patterns emerged. According to Akeel, testimonials gathered individually from former captives held in U.S. prisons all over Iraq indicate many of the common methods came into use across disparate, geographically distant detention centers.
Perhaps the most disturbing evidence Akeel found suggesting an overarching policy of abuse comes in the form of firsthand accounts that captors singled out religiously observant prisoners for particularly harsh abuse.
Akeel said former detainees told him that upon arrival at a U.S.-run facility, they were each given a questionnaire asking them about their religious affiliation as well as their vices. In Akeel’s words, the questions included: “Are you Sunni? Are you Shia? Do you drink? Do you not drink? Do you have a girlfriend?” Akeel said he found a consistent pattern among the cases: the stricter the religious observance a detainee reported to his captors, the more severe the treatment he would receive at their hands.
Akeel provided several examples of religious desecration, including stories of men who had purified themselves in an Islamic absolution ritual only to be subsequently doused with beer and alcohol by captors. At one prison, plaintiffs told Akeel, captors hung a picture of a pig on the wall toward which prisoners faced to worship and told them, “Pray to your pig.”
In one horrific case recounted to Akeel, a naked woman wearing a strapped on sexual device raped an elderly man while he was fasting. The man said the woman came in silently behind him, “wearing a belt with a penis,” Akeel relayed. The man told Akeel he could not determine whether his assailant was an American MP or a private contractor.
Akeel also uncovered a method, previously unknown to his legal team, by which captors were malicious in their matching of interpreters with the prisoners they would help interrogate. He said that in each interrogation case before him, the victim was assigned an interpreter with a “built-in-prejudice.”
“All of the translators are of Arabic descent,” Akeel said. “So they’d put an Egyptian Coptic [Christian] translator to look over the [Sunni Muslims]. It’s like putting a Serb in charge of a Muslim [in the former Yugoslavia]. This is a pattern everywhere; [it was] very specific.”
Akeel said he interviewed victims from across the social spectrum, “from lawyers to doctors, to kids, to the elderly, to housewives.” He said U.S. jailers and their contractors subjected all the plaintiffs to similar mistreatment.
One woman told Akeel she witnessed an imprisoned man and woman raped on her first night of incarceration.
Other witnesses said a group of naked male detainees was forced to serve food to naked female prisoners who begged the men to cover their eyes.
In another account, a doctor first taken to a presidential palace and made to stand there for hours on end, told Akeel that he was then taken to the Abu Ghraib prison where he watched a naked prisoner forced onto the running engine of a Humvee, leaving the man with irreparable burns.
Witnesses also told Akeel the famous Tikrit area stables of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, now house Iraqi prisoners who are forced to urinate and defecate in the same stalls where they sleep.
Akeel returned from his mission to Baghdad last week. He said he is still processing everything he learned, and has agreed to provide The NewStandard detailed documentation confirming these accounts once he has organized the material. All of it, he said, will be introduced as part of the case against CACI and Titan.
One witness Akeel had hoped to interview will not be part of the lawsuit. Akeel said he was expecting to speak with a woman who had been raped at one U.S.-run prison, and later discovered she was pregnant. Tragically, she killed herself before they could meet.
(Brian Dominick contributed to this article)