RICHMOND, Va. — A lawsuit by four former Iraqi detainees who said they were tortured at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq may go forward, a federal appeals court said Monday.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sends the case back to U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, who had ruled that he lacked jurisdiction to hear it because the alleged abuse occurred in a foreign country.
CACI Premier Technology Inc., an Arlington, Virginia-based military contractor, was hired to interrogate detainees at the U.S.-run prison in Iraq. The detainees said CACI employees conspired to have soldiers torture them to soften them up for questioning. The former detainees say they were subjected to electrical shocks, sexual violence and forced nudity.
In 2004, photos depicting soldiers abusing Abu Ghraib detainees became public, shocking the national conscience and producing “universal condemnation among U.S. political and military leaders,” the plaintiffs said in court papers.
Lee ruled last year that a U.S. Supreme Court decision in another case involving a human rights law, the Alien Tort Statute, barred him from hearing the lawsuit. But unlike the case cited by Lee, the appeals court said, this one had substantial American ties — the company, its employees and the military that controlled the prison.
“We conclude that the plaintiffs’ claims ‘touch and concern’ the territory of the United States with sufficient force to displace the presumption against extraterritorial application,” Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote.
CACI could appeal the panel’s ruling to the full appeals court or to the U.S. Supreme Court. The company’s lawyer, J. William Koegel Jr., declined to comment.
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.
One of the questions left unanswered by the appeals court’s ruling is whether the lawsuit is barred by the “political question doctrine,” which prevents federal courts from deciding issues that the Constitution assigns to political branches. CACI sought to invoke that doctrine as an alternative defense, but Lee tossed the lawsuit for other reasons.
The appeals court said Lee will have to gather more evidence about whether the civilian interrogators had some degree of autonomy or were directly controlled by the military.