WASHINGTON - Two US Army subcontractors accused of torturing prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail go to court Wednesday in a case that highlights the murky legal status of private US companies in Iraq.
Titan and CACI International were hired by the Army to provide interrogators and interpreters at the notorious prison, the scene of well-documented abuses of detainees following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
One former Iraqi prisoner now living in Sweden says that under the companies' watch, he was sodomized, nearly strangled with a belt, tied by his genitals to other detainees, and given repeated electric shocks.
"This is probably the most important case still standing against Abu Ghraib because the cases against the government have essentially failed so far," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
"This case represents our last hope for getting some accountability for the torture in Iraq and getting any compensation for the victims," said Ratner, whose group has fielded lawyers to assist in the lawsuit.
The case was filed in 2004 by a dozen former prisoners and the family of a man who died in detention, accusing Titan and CACI of conspiring with US officials "to humiliate, torture and abuse persons" at Abu Ghraib.
But US security companies in Iraq occupy a legal gray area, as highlighted by the case of Blackwater USA, which according to a new Congress report has been involved in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005.
The report was issued by a House of Representatives committee as congressmen convened hearings following a September 16 shooting in a crowded Baghdad square involving Blackwater guards that killed at least 10 Iraqis.
Under an order passed by the US occupation authority in 2004, security contractors hired by the Pentagon and State Department enjoy immunity from arrest under Iraqi law for acts related to their contracts.
After the Baghdad shootings, the Iraqi government said it was preparing a new law to control the operations of the private companies, but has backed off initial demands for Blackwater to be thrown out of Iraq.
At Wednesday's hearing, Titan and CACI were to ask Washington federal judge James Robertson to dismiss the case.
The companies argue that they cannot be tried as they were under the control of the Army, which in turn says it can only prosecute its own personnel, not civilians.
Other US judges have refused to hear cases brought by former Iraqi prisoners, arguing that they have no jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed against foreigners in a third country.
But in one case brought by a federal prosecutor in North Carolina, former CIA agent David Passaro was jailed for more than eight years in February for beating an Afghan prisoner who died of his injuries in 2003.
Detroit-based lawyer Shereef Akeel, who is representing some of the Abu Ghraib plaintiffs, is confident that the case will proceed.
"This is for the sake of who we are (as Americans). And if we don't understand the principals at stake here -- if we let them lay low -- we have done a disservice to our founding fathers," he said.
"I have this vision of the Iraqis coming here... of putting them in a hotel in Washington, DC right across the street from the people who make the decisions... so they can have their day in court," Akeel added.
The sole US officer charged over the Abu Ghraib abuses, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan, escaped with just a reprimand at his court martial in late August.
Eleven junior soldiers are serving varying sentences but no senior Pentagon official was ever charged in the scandal, which President George W. Bush has described as the "biggest mistake" made by the United States in Iraq.
© 2007 Agence France Press