20 Years Later, a Jury Weighs Claims of Abuse at Abu Ghraib

The journalist said he was left naked overnight in a cold prison cell with a bag over his head, chained by his wrists to a pipe.

The fruit vendor said he was forced to take off his clothes and masturbate, while his captors watched and took photos.

The middle-school principal said he was told he would be raped, and that his family would be brought to the prison and raped as well.

At a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., a jury listened last week to the accounts of three Iraqis who were arrested by U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then held at Abu Ghraib prison.

Abuses like those the men say they endured have already been documented in reports from three Army generals, the C.I.A. inspector general, two Senate committees, and the Red Cross. But last week marked the first time a civilian jury heard allegations of America’s post-9/11 torture program directly from detainees.

The three men — Salah Hasan Al-Ejaili, Suhail Al Shimari, and Asa’ad Al-Zuba’e — are suing CACI Premier Technology, which is a subsidiary of the Virginia-based defense contractor CACI, and was hired to supply the Army with intelligence and interrogation services after the Iraq invasion. The plaintiffs say that CACI interrogators told military police officers to “soften up” the plaintiffs for questioning, and that those directives made the company responsible for “torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” carried out on the detainees.

In court, CACI denied that its employees committed or directed others to commit any abuse. And even if they had done so, the company’s lawyers argued, CACI could not be held liable, because any perpetrators would have been rogue employees, or under the operational control of the military. Testimony from defense witnesses touched on the fact that in addition to the military, U.S. intelligence agencies had their own interrogators at Abu Ghraib.

This week, after hearing six days of testimony and then closing arguments, the jury has been deliberating whether CACI employees conspired to abuse or torture the plaintiffs, and if so, whether CACI should pay damages.

The judge, Leonie M. Brinkema, has presided over other cases stemming from the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and the trial in this case coincides with a grim 9/11-related anniversary. The images that made Abu Ghraib notorious — two soldiers grinning behind a pile of naked detainees, and a soldier pulling a naked detainee on a dog leash — first became public 20 years ago this week.

At the time, Pentagon officials attributed the brutality seen in those images to a few bad apples — “just a handful of soldiers,” as one general put it. Fewer than a dozen enlisted soldiers were convicted in courts-martial and sentenced to military prison. No private contractors were charged.

But Abu Ghraib would mark a turning point in how the war on terror was viewed by many people in the United States and around the world, offering an early glimpse of the abuses and excesses that would stain the campaign and the reputation of the United States. The images were followed by reams of evidence showing that immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. authorities decided that they could subject “unlawful combatants” who were suspected of being part of Al Qaeda to waterboarding and other forms of what the government called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

There were the Justice Department memos justifying harsh interrogation techniques. There was the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the C.I.A.’s use of torture , which documented other instances of interrogators threatening to harm members of detainees’ families — as Mr. Al Shimari, one of the plaintiffs in Alexandria, has alleged. The 2014 tussle over that report between Senator Dianne Feinstein and John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, led to President Barack Obama’s admission that “we tortured some folks.”

“Abu Ghraib exploded our myths that Americans don’t torture, or that they do so only when righteously racing a ‘ticking time bomb,’” said Harold H. Koh, a professor of law at Yale University who served as legal adviser to the State Department during the Obama administration.

The plaintiffs suing CACI are represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights organization. The group won a $5 million settlement in 2013 in a similar case against the Titan Corporation, another military contractor that had employees at Abu Ghraib. The plaintiffs could not sue the U.S. government, which is (with a few exceptions) immune to tort lawsuits.

Mr. Al-Ejaili, the journalist, has three children and lives with his wife in Sweden. He was working as a cameraman for Al Jazeera in the fall of 2003 when he was arrested by U.S. troops. At Abu Ghraib, he was moved from a tent through a screening center to his first interrogation, with an interpreter and an interrogator, who was a tall man wearing civilian clothes. He said he was then shackled. Soldiers pulled a bag over his head. He heard the word “confess” screamed in both of his ears.

He was commanded to undress, according to his testimony. “At the beginning, I tried to object,” he said. “after that, my soul was shocked.” He spent the night naked and shackled to a pipe. He vomited on the floor.

“I had no control over what was happening to me, or what would happen to me,” he told the jury. “I wished to die.”

Mr. Al-Ejaili was naked for roughly 80 percent of the time he was at Abu Ghraib, he said. He and the other detainees would avoid looking directly at one another, he said, to try to alleviate the humiliation.

Less than two months after his arrest, he was released without being charged. Mr. Al-Zuba’e, the fruit vendor, and Mr. Al Shimari, the school principal, were also released without charges.

According to a military officers cited in the Red Cross report, “70 to 90 percent” of Iraqis who were detained by U.S. and allied forces “had been arrested by mistake.”

All three men passed through Tier 1A of Abu Ghraib’s “hard site,” a building where the U.S. military held detainees believed to withholding valuable intelligence. It would become the epicenter of the Abu Ghraib scandal and the focus of investigations conducted by two generals who testified at the trial in Alexandria.

The plaintiffs sought to use the generals’ reports to do what the detainees themselves, 20 years after the fact, could not: offer details of exactly who was responsible.

The reports implicated three CACI employees in connection with wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib. The three employees were originally hired by CACI to work as screeners, processing new detainees when they arrived at the prison. But as the military and its contractors struggled to keep up with the influx, all three were assigned to work as interrogators, expected to elicit information from the prisoners.

CACI’s contract with the federal government was worth more than $40 million, but the testimony of one of the investigating generals last week suggested that one of the CACI employees, Steven Stefanowicz, saw himself as answering to no one in the U.S. military.

Gen. Antonio Taguba, who conducted one of the Abu Ghraib reviews, recalled that Mr. Stefanowicz“would lean on the table during his interview, staring me down.” “And I did the same to him,” the general said. “He did not answer the questions.”

In his report, General Taguba, who is now retired, said that Mr. Stefanowicz “made a false statement” about his knowledge of what was happening to detainees and that he “clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse.”

The separate report by Gen. George Fay documented 44 instances of detainee abuse. General Fay found that while none of the acts had been approved by the military chain of command, 16 could have been committed at the direction of either military intelligence personnel or the civilian contractors who worked alongside them.

When asked at the trial if Mr. Stefanowicz was involved in abuses, General Fay, who is now retired, responded, “Our finding was that he probably was.”

In a video deposition played at the trial in Alexandria, Mr. Stefanowicz laid any blame with the military. “Whether they equated to abuse or not, they were approved forms and techniques approved by the Army,” he said of the interrogation practices at Abu Ghraib.

Torin Nelson, another CACI interrogator, testified at the trial that reports written by the company’s Abu Ghraib interrogators contained passages like “detainee has been crying in the corner like a baby” and “detainee has been broken into 1,000 pieces like Humpty Dumpty.”

John O’Connor, the lawyer who led CACI’s defense, said that “bad things happened at Abu Ghraib” and acknowledged the “horrific nature” of the images of abused detainees. But he denied that the perpetrators acted at the direction of CACI interrogators, saying the soldiers “did these things for their own sadistic, criminal purposes.”

Jurors heard not only from the three detainees, but also from some of the military police who served as guards on Tier 1A and were implicated in the initial scandal.

One of the M.P.s said that the guards’ relationship with the interrogators was “a brotherhood” and said, “We were led to believe we were saving American lives.”

There was a video deposition from Charles A. Graner, a soldier who appeared in photographs standing and grinning behind a pyramid of naked, hooded detainees, and flashing a thumbs-up beside the ice-packed corpse of a detainee who died during a C.I.A. interrogation. Often described at the time of the scandal as the “ringleader” of the troops committing abuses, Mr. Graner was sentenced by a military jury to ten years’ confinement for more than a dozen incidents of prisoner abuse.

In his deposition, taken in 2013, Mr. Graner said that civilian interrogators were among those who gave instructions to the military police. “Written or unwritten, we followed what we were instructed to do” Mr. Graner said.

When asked by email who was ultimately responsible for the treatment of Abu Ghraib detainees, Graner wrote that “everyone” was to blame.

“Everyone knew it was wrong” he said, “and no one was willing to step up and stop it.”

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