Weeks before anyone published the now-infamous photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Shereef Akeel, an Egyptian-American lawyer working outside Detroit, received a strange visitor. The caller, an Iraqi with Swedish citizenship, walked into Akeel's office one day in March to tell a horrible story: He had been tortured by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
"Abu what?" Akeel asked. The visitor, whom Akeel will identify only as "Saleh," explained to the Huntington Woods, Mich., lawyer that he had been held at Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein's most notorious prison, not once, but twice.
The first time, he said, was for opposing Saddam's regime. After his release, he fled to Sweden. But in September of 2003, he said, he returned to Iraq, answering America's call for expatriates to come home and rebuild their country.
He crossed the border from Jordan in a Mercedes loaded with $70,000 in cash, he said. He was stopped by Americans who took his car, his cash, and threw him into Abu Ghraib, he said. There he remained for three months, he said, and he never saw his car or his money again.
His story is among the worst told by 13 Iraqis who have filed two unusual lawsuits - longshot attempts to hold American civilian contractors responsible for torture in Iraq, allegations that they strongly deny.
According to Saleh, his second stay at Abu Ghraib was his worst. While being held by American civilians working at the prison, Saleh claimed:
â¢ His genitals were beaten with a stick and then tied by rope to the genitals of other prisoners. A guard pushed one man down, causing the others to fall like dominoes.
â¢ He was beaten, shocked with electricity, forced to masturbate before others, dragged by a belt tied around his neck, and pistol-whipped.
â¢ He heard the screams of an Iraqi woman being raped by an American guard.
â¢ He saw other male prisoners beaten and watched a guard shoot into a crowd of detainees, killing at least five men, including one he had befriended.
After the Americans released him, Saleh again fled to Sweden. In March, he traveled to Michigan to visit his mother. It was there he heard about Akeel, who had gained prominence after Sept. 11, 2001, for filing anti-discrimination lawsuits on behalf several members of Detroit's large Arab-American community.
After Akeel accepted Saleh's case, word spread. Relatives of other detainees began calling, Akeel said, and he soon had more clients than he could handle. The case was getting too big.
He sought help from The Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based organization dedicated to racial equality. In June, they filed a lawsuit in San Diego, Calif., on behalf of eight Iraqis - including Saleh and a widow who said her husband was killed at Abu Ghraib - and a potential class of more than 1,000 people. The suits were filed not against the U.S. military but against giant American firms providing interrogators and translators to occupying forces in Iraq.
One month later, on the other side of the country, other lawyers filed a similar lawsuit in Washington, D.C., on behalf of five people, former prisoners and, again, a woman who said her husband was killed in custody.
The 13 Iraqis all claim they were imprisoned and interrogated by Americans, but never charged with any crime. Some were held for days, some for months. The federal lawsuits allege prisoners were killed, raped and tortured at prisons including Abu Ghraib, an adjacent facility at Camp Ganci and Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq.
The defendants are Virginia-based CACI International Inc. and Titan Corp. of San Diego, suppliers of thousands of interrogators and translators to military units in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Also named as defendants are three civilian employees: interrogator Stephen Stephanowicz of CACI, and translators John Israel and Adel Nakhla of Titan. Israel worked for a Titan subsidiary. All three, the suits claim, committed acts of torture.
The private companies deny the allegations, which CACI called in a statement "a malicious and farcical recitation of false statements and intentional distortions."
Nakhla has been fired by Titan for undisclosed reasons , the company has said. Attorneys for the men declined comment, and phone messages left by The Associated Press for the three civilians were not returned.
The same men and their employers were also identified in Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's report on brutality at Abu Ghraib. The companies, but not their workers, were also named in a recent investigation by Army Maj. Gen. George Fay.
Both Army reports said civilian contractors were instigators and participants in abusing detainees. Some details of mistreatment cited in the reports match the claims of Iraqis in the lawsuits, though the sworn statements of the latter go much further in detailing alleged murder and heterosexual and homosexual rapes.
The civil lawsuits - subject to lesser standards of proof than criminal trials - are nonetheless longshots. Yet they represent perhaps the only legal recourse available to former prisoners because civilian contractors, who number between 15,000 and 20,000 in Iraq - operate with impunity while doing their jobs.
Under an order from Iraq's former American administrator, L. Paul Bremer, neither soldiers nor private contractors can be charged in Iraq with any crime committed in the course of their duties. Although soldiers can be charged under United States military laws, those statutes contain no provisions for charging civilians.
There is scant precedent for trying American citizens in the United States for crimes committed while working abroad under military contracts. Only one person - a civilian who was working for the CIA in Afghanistan - has been charged in the United States for prisoner abuse during the war against terrorism.
A new, but largely untried law - the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act - might be used to hold contractors accountable for their behavior overseas, but it applies only to Department of Defense contracts. CACI is operating under an Interior Department agreement. Titan's contracts are with the Pentagon. The new law has been most notably used in connection with U.S. officials wanting to charge foreigners committing alleged crimes against Americans on U.S. bases overseas.
Atlanta attorney Rod Edmond, one of several American lawyers representing the Iraqis, is skeptical more charges will be filed. "The only thing the contractors have to answer to is the U.S. Civil Code," he said. "And that's why we filed it against them. They had contracts to provide translators and interrogators and they screwed it up.
"These people were really tortured," he said. "And some of these people are really dead."
The suits charge both contractors with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) - normally used to prosecute organized crime figures - by conspiring to torture and abuse prisoners to increase profits.
Meaning, according to the Iraqis' lawyers, that the more prisoners were tortured, the more they confessed, which increased the hiring of interrogators and translators. The suits also charge contractors with violating the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, a little-used law originally enacted to prosecute pirates.
Some legal experts say the suits have little chance of succeeding, for roughly the same reasons criminal charges stand little chances of being filed: There is a lack of legal precedence in such matters.
"They can't be charged, period," said Scott Horton, former chairman of the New York City Bar Association's Committee on International Human Rights. "By the use of civilian contractors," Horton contends, government officials "made clear this was a conscious effort to create a climate of impunity."
The best that can come out of the lawsuits, Horton said, will be information provided during the discovery process, when the firms will be asked to explain what their employees did in Iraq, and how they obtained intelligence from prisoners.
One of those prisoners, according to Akeel's lawsuit, was Sami Abbas Majdel Al Rawi, 56, owner of a Baghdad company involved in reconstruction contracts with the U.S. government. He was arrested with his son, Mwafaq, a 28-year-old lawyer, on March 1 at Baghdad International Airport.
Akeel said the father and son told of being beaten, handcuffed, hooded, deprived of food and water, not allowed to use a toilet, and forced to stand on one leg for long periods at an airport jail. The father also claimed he was carrying more than $65,000 and more than 15 million Iraqi dinars (worth more than $10,000), which was confiscated and not returned, Akeel said.
In August, the Michigan lawyer flew to Iraq to conduct more interviews with former prisoners. He grew a beard. He was careful not to speak English on the street, lest he be kidnapped or endanger the lives of people who wanted to tell their abuse stories.
Akeel said he spoke with a 15-year-old and two relatives who said they were abused in July at a Baghdad detention center near the airport. The boy said he was sodomized with fingers, and was not allowed to sleep or eat.
Akeel also said he interviewed an 18-year-old who described being arrested with his father and a cousin, and then being held for more than two weeks in horse stables built for Saddam Hussein in the dictator's hometown of Tikrit.
"It was very disturbing," Akeel said. "Whatever fear I had turned into outrage."
Meanwhile, Michael Hourigan, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor, traveled to Iraq that same month to interview Iraqis on behalf of the lawsuit filed by his friend, Atlanta attorney Edmond.
"Hearing their stories ... it was senseless," Hourigan said. "They had no involvement with the war. They were just ordinary citizens. The people I talked to, there was no anger against the Americans or the British, they just wanted to get their stories out."
One of the stories Hourigan collected belongs to Saddam Saleh Aboud, who gave a videotaped deposition in Baghdad, a copy of which was provided to The Associated Press.
In it, Aboud said he had gone to Iraqi police to report a carload of explosives parked on a residential street. That got him arrested and handed over to the American military. Eventually he was incarcerated at Abu Ghraib as prisoner number 200144.
In an affidavit, the 29-year-old Iraqi said he was threatened with rape, urinated on, stripped naked, hooded, made to stand on a box for hours at a time while holding a plastic chair over his head, beaten, taunted with growling and snapping dogs and blasted with rock music blaring from loudspeakers placed next to his head.
"For 18 days, no questions, only torture. I came to the point where I wished they would ask me a question," Aboud said in his affidavit. "Eighteen days just naked, being beaten, threatened by dogs, the cold and the loud sound."
He saw a soldier rape an Iraqi woman in a prison corridor, he said in his affidavit. Hearing her scream, male prisoners began shouting "Allahu akbar" (God is great).
"When I was discharged, they told me that I had been detained because I was under suspicion," Aboud said in an affidavit. "Suspicion of what I was never told."
The day he was released, Aboud said, "one of the Americans gave me $10 and told me that he was sorry. This American told me that I had seen many things. Some good and some bad. He told me to forget the bad because this was best for me."