A federal judge in Washington ruled yesterday that a civil lawsuit alleging abuse and torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq can go forward against a U.S. military contractor, setting the stage for what could be the first case in a U.S. civilian court to weigh accountability for the notorious abuses in 2003.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson denied CACI International's motion to dismiss a civil lawsuit on behalf of more than 200 Iraqis who at one time were detained at the Abu Ghraib prison. The Iraqis allege that the contracted CACI interrogators took part in abuses and that the company should be held liable for the harm inflicted on the detainees.
Attorneys for the Arlington-based CACI have argued the company should be immune from such a lawsuit because it worked at the behest of the U.S. military, but Robertson said he believes a jury should hear the case, in part because CACI had its own chain of command and might not have answered directly to the military.
Legal experts said the decision could affect other U.S. contractors alleged to have harmed Iraqi civilians, even if the U.S. government is unable or unwilling to prosecute individuals in U.S. criminal courts. The decision could set a precedent for how the courts deal with cases such as the Blackwater shootings of Iraqi civilians in September.
"A military contractor is going to have to think twice about the arrangements it works out with the government when it is brought in to play a role the military has typically played," said David Remes, a Washington lawyer who has represented Guantanamo Bay detainees. "The decision shows that companies like Blackwater are at risk."
Susan L. Burke, a lawyer representing the Iraqi detainees along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, alleges that CACI interrogators were responsible for numerous abuses. Burke also filed a similar lawsuit against Blackwater for wrongful death over the Sept. 16 incident in Baghdad.
Michael Ratner, CCR's president, said he believes it is a remarkable achievement that the civil case could go to trial, as numerous others have faltered. He said he believes the case will set a new standard: "I think the whole opinion sends a message to private contractors that you can't just do what you want in Iraq."
Military investigations of the Abu Ghraib abuse linked CACI interrogators to alleged abuses such as the use of dogs in interrogations and putting detainees in painful "stress positions."
CACI officials yesterday denied any wrongdoing and vowed to vigorously defend and vindicate the company.
"From day one, CACI has rejected the outrageous allegations of this lawsuit and will continue to do so," said Jody Brown, a CACI spokeswoman. "CACI has unequivocally renounced any abuse of detainees in Iraq and has cooperated fully in all government inquiries relating to detainee abuse. The court's ruling today only declined to end the lawsuit now."
In the same ruling, Robertson granted summary judgment for Titan Corp. -- now called L-3 Communications Titan -- ending the case against that company, which supplied interpreters for Abu Ghraib.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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