No private contractors have so far faced prosecution despite their implication in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, according to a new Pentagon report.
The study, sent to Congress earlier this year but not publicly released, covers the period from the start of May 2003 to the end of October 2004. It was ordered by Congress last year in the immediate aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which it emerged that employees of private contractors were directly involved in interrogating Iraqi detainees.
A Pentagon investigation last year found that "several of the alleged perpetrators of the abuse of detainees" were private contractors, but noted that they might not be subject to criminal prosecution because of the legal vacuum created during US administration of Iraq.
The new report found that during the 18 months examined, no private contractor was disciplined or charged with any criminal offence in relation to their work in Iraq. It noted, however, that several of the abuse cases had been forwarded by the Pentagon to the Justice Department for investigation. "To date, no charges have been filed, however the cases remain under active investigation by the DOJ," the report said.
Human rights groups have argued that because a large number of the approximately 8,000 armed non-Iraqis hired by contractors in Iraq are not subject to military justice, and such "private soldiers" are almost never tried at home for acts committed abroad, any crimes committed in Iraq are likely to go unpunished, particularly given the weak state of the justice system there.
The new Pentagon report, however, argues there are a number of appropriate laws and regulations in place, including the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), which covers contractors supporting the military mission, and the War Crimes Act, which covers any US national who violates the laws of war.
Douglas Brooks, head of the Washington-based International Peace Operations Association, said the industry supported last year's expansion of the MEJA, which formerly applied only to contractors deployed with US troops. In addition, he noted that the nascent Iraqi government had been more rigorous in requiring contractors to register with the interior department.
But the report, compiled by the US army, acknowledges that such legal remedies are short of comprehensive, noting that most disciplinary actions - particularly for minor offences - are left to a contractor's employer.
However, it argues that because of sanctions that could befall contractors - including the prospect of contract cancellation - there are strong incentives for companies to monitor their employees' behaviour strictly.
Mr Brooks said that while such a situation might not be ideal, it was the nature of working in conflict zones. "In any environment like that, you don't have the luxury of boards of appeal and courts for minor offences," he said. "What happens is the people are fired. Unfortunately, that's what you have to do in this environment."
The report said at least 166 people working for private contractors were killed and 1,171 wounded in Iraq during the first 18 months following the fall of Saddam Hussein. Of those killed 64 were US citizens. The study did not disclose the nationalities of the other victims. Of the 1,171 wounded, 175 were Americans.
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