Abu Ghraib and the decades-long battle for justice

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The notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which was used by US and coalition forces to torture Iraqi detainees after the US invaded the country, has been closed for nearly a decade.

But in the case of Salah al-Ejaili, who was held and tortured there, she will never be a chapter until justice is delivered and those who did the torture are held accountable. Ejaili has been fighting a legal battle in the US courts for the past 15 years, and while that amount of time would weigh on most people, Ejaili says he has never felt stronger in his fight for some form of compensation.

“The lack of closure in my case made me even more bound and committed to getting justice for myself and all the other tortured Iraqis,” he told Middle East Eye.

Ejaili is one of four Iraqis who filed a lawsuit in 2008 against the private military contractor CACI, alleging the company was involved in the torture that took place there. The law cites the Alien Tort Statute, a law passed in 1789 that gives American courts jurisdiction over cases involving violations of international law.

War in Iraq: I was tortured in Abu Ghraib. After 20 years, I am still looking for justice

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The case, Al Shimari v CACI, has been thrown back and forth between the district and appellate courts over the years, and CACI has repeatedly filed motions to dismiss the case. According to Katherine Gallagher, lead attorney for Ejaili and the other plaintiffs, the judge said that a ruling will be delivered next October.

Gallagher, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), has spent much of her career fighting civil liberties, war crimes and torture cases, including several cases involving the abuses that occurred in Abu Ghraib.

Some cases were lost, others won, and others were settled out of court. Although she is hopeful that the current cases will be successful, Gallagher noted that, unfortunately, justice cannot always be delivered.

“My views on something like settlement have evolved over the last few years. Because there are a couple of outcomes you can have and one of them is definitely a total loss. And so settlement can measure to have justice, even if it’s not the judge you want to see,” said Gallagher.

CACI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Torture and confinement

From March to November 2003, Ejaili worked as a reporter for Al Jazeera, where he covered the US invasion of Iraq.

“I was working as a journalist covering and exposing some of the crimes that US forces had committed against Iraqi civilians at that time.”

The job was difficult and dangerous and Ejaili always worked carefully.

‘Nothing can ever make up for the torture I endured’

– Salah al-Ejaily, former custodian at Abu Ghraib

“I worked very carefully. I don’t want to be alone. I always try to work within a group of other journalists,” said Ejaili.

But despite his warning, in November 2003 while traveling to Diyala province to report on an explosion, he was detained by the US military at the scene and later transferred to Abu Ghraib.

Ejaili said he was immediately detained after soldiers discovered he was working for Al Jazeera. When he asked why he was taking it, the answer was: “You know the reason”.

Once there, he spent more than 40 days in solitary confinement and was also exposed, subjected to beatings, without food, and kept in conditions of sensory deprivation.

CCR alleges that CACI was responsible for the interrogation services at the prison and that some of its employees directed and caused some of the most brutal torture and treatment at Abu Ghraib.

Ejaili, who now lives in Sweden with his family, said that the torture left him traumatized to this day, and that he is still unable to talk to his children about what happened to him in prison.

“Nothing can cause the torture I suffered, but the least I hope is to expose them and prevent this in other parts of the world ,” he said, referring to CACI and the other private military contractors in Iraq.

Justice delayed

Ejaili’s case – the last hearing was in September 2022 – is one of several lawsuits filed against private contractors on behalf of Abu Ghraib victims.

The first case against CACI and another contractor called Titan Corporation (later changed its name to L-3 Services, then Engility) was filed in 2004, after attorney Shereef Akeel met with Haidar Saleh. Saleh was an Iraqi national who was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib after returning to the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of more than 250 Iraqi civilians, was eventually dismissed in 2011. But despite the loss, other cases have led to settlements for the victims.

“Although we have had losses, we have also won in terms of increasing recognition of what happened,” Akeel told Middle East Eye.

“The case is not only measured in dollars and cents. When people are brought to account in front of the media, or when people in the army are court-martialed, or when bills are passed, or when courts find that a case can be brought. . These are multiple ways or types of wins to hold people accountable for their wins.”

For Akeel, the legal fight for accountability has now lasted more than 19 years. But like Ejaili, the delay only gave the attorney more urgency to push for justice.

Private military contractors

The war in Iraq was run in part by private military contractors. In 2004, there were 15,000 private contractors working in Iraq for the US military, from small businesses that hired commandos to huge corporations responsible for maintaining the military’s supply chains.

“The war in Iraq was in many ways, a war for profit. It was a war about resources and about money. So the contractor piece and contractor accountability was a piece that we felt was important to draw attention to,” said Gallagher MEE.

The lines between soldiers and civilians were blurred by the US military’s reliance on these contractors, which often led to major accountability issues when cases of abuse or illegal behavior occurred, or when people were killed.

‘A win against this company would set an important precedent’

– Salah al-Ejaily, former custodian at Abu Ghraib

One of the most famous military contractors operating in Iraq was formerly known as Blackwater, founded by Erik Prince. In September 2007, members of the company opened fire in Baghdad’s crowded Nisour Square, in a bloody massacre that caused an international scandal and further resentment of the American presence in Iraq.

Gallagher, who worked with CCR on a lawsuit against Blackwater over the September shooting that killed 17 people, said in the Abu Ghraib case, the military hired private companies because they were unprepared for the military invasion of Iraq. .

“The United States went to war, completely unprepared. It went into this invasion without anticipating what followed,” she said.

Ejaili said that while he was being held at Abu Ghraib, it was sometimes difficult to tell who was an American soldier and who was a contractor. There were certain signs that indicated one was part of the army, such as a name badge and some type of insignia, but often, the lines seemed to blur.

“But it was difficult to know 100 percent and make a clear distinction between the contractors and the soldiers,” he said.

The former Al Jazeera reporter hopes his lawsuit will eventually succeed in court, and set a precedent where private defense companies can be held liable for rights abuses.

“I knew from the beginning that a victory against this company would set an important precedent where all private military contractors who commit human rights abuses around the world could also be brought to justice.”

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