WASHINGTON - Lawyers for Iraqis tortured while in U.S. custody have sued two private security companies for allegedly abusing prisoners to extract information from them with the goal of winning more contracts from the U.S. government.
According to the class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and a Philadelphia law firm, the corporations conspired with U.S. officials to "humiliate, torture and abuse persons" detained by U.S. troops in Iraq.
The suit, which was filed in federal court in San Diego, California, names as defendants the Titan Corporation of San Diego and CACI International of Arlington, Virginia, that company's subsidiaries and three individuals who work for the firms.
Lawyers of at least nine Iraqi victims say they are seeking undisclosed compensation and to have the two companies barred from receiving future contracts from the U.S. government.
The suit accuses the companies of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), alleging that they engaged in a wide range of "heinous and illegal acts in order to demonstrate their abilities to obtain intelligence from detainees, and thereby obtain more contracts from the government."
RICO is a U.S. law that enables persons financially injured by a pattern of criminal activity to seek redress through state or federal courts, and penalizes acts of "racketeering" and other serious crimes.
The lawsuit also charges that three individuals, Stephen Stephanowicz and John Israel of CACI, Inc, and Adel Nahkla of Titan, directed and participated in illegal conduct at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
"We believe that CACI and Titan engaged in a conspiracy to torture and abuse detainees and did so to make more money," said Susan Burke of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
"It is patently clear that these corporations saw an opportunity to build their businesses by proving they could extract information from detainees in Iraq, by any means necessary. In doing so they not only violated a raft of domestic and international statutes but diminished America's stature and reputation around the world."
The names of the two companies and the three employees appeared in a U.S. Department of Defense report on abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
A spokesperson for Titan told IPS the company merely provided translation services for the U.S. government in Iraq and was not in control of Iraqi prisoners.
"We believe the lawsuit is frivolous and we will defend against it vigorously, and we do not know of any government allegations on this issue nor have we heard of any government allegation or charge against the single former employee that is mentioned in the lawsuit," said Titan's Wil Williams.
"We have never had control of prisoners or how they were handled."
While U.S. soldiers have appeared responsible for the atrocities that began to emerge via still and video photos earlier this spring, more recent pictures of the abuse of Iraqi detainees are bringing to light the role that the mostly unregulated private contractors working in occupied Iraq played in the interrogation of detainees.
Lawyers for some of the soldiers already tried in Iraq for abusing prisoners said they claimed to be acting in part under the instruction of mercenaries hired by the Pentagon as interrogators.
One civilian contractor was accused of raping a young male prisoner, but has not been charged because military law has no jurisdiction over him.
The case filed Wednesday cites the example of 63-year-old Ibrahim, who died in Abu Ghraib as a result of acts and inaction by the companies. The plaintiff in this case is the man's estate.
According to the complaint, the plaintiffs suffered at the hands of the defendants and conspiring government officials.
The victims endured "being hooded and raped" and "being forced to watch their father tortured and abused so badly that he died."
The complaint also says victims suffered repeated beatings, including with chains, boots and other objects; "being urinated on and otherwise humiliated", and "being prevented from praying and otherwise abiding by their religious practices", which included being forced to eat pork and breakfast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Muslims, who do not eat pork, are supposed to fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan.
"CACI and Titan perpetrated brutal human rights abuses to obtain information, a practice that is not only barbaric but leads to false confessions," said CCR Legal Director Jeffrey E Fogel. "The modern way to describe this is outsourcing torture; in the old days we'd call these people mercenaries."
Calls to CACI's Arlington headquarters seeking comment were not immediately returned.
CACI and Titan are publicly traded corporations that provide interrogation and translation services to U.S. government agencies.
Titan, which calls itself a national security company, has about 12 thousand employees and annual sales of close to two billion dollars. CACI, which employs more than nine thousand people, reported revenues of 843 million dollars in 2003.
According to the complaint, beginning in January 2002 and continuing to the present, the two companies provided services ranging from interrogation and interpretation to intelligence gathering and security.
Both firms increasingly profited from government contracts. Titan, for example, developed a unit known as "National Security Solutions", whose revenue grew 21 percent in 2003.
The lawsuit comes only days after a leaked memo, written by the administration's legal experts and seen by IPS, said U.S. President George Bush was not obligated to abide by international treaties or U.S. laws against torture of prisoners if they were a threat to the country's national security.
Testifying yesterday before Congress, Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to disclose or discuss the unclassified 2002 Justice Department memorandum to the White House, which describes legal justifications for torture.
Ashcroft, though, acknowledged the document was not confidential advice to the president and was "widely distributed throughout the executive branch."
Rights groups have been increasingly accusing senior administration officials of being behind the atrocities.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report Wednesday that torture and mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was a result of the Bush administration's decision to dodge international law.
The 38-page report, 'The Road to Abu Ghraib', examines how the administration adopted a deliberate policy of permitting illegal interrogation techniques, and then spent two years covering up or ignoring reports of torture and other abuse by U.S. troops.
"The horrors of Abu Ghraib were not simply the acts of individual soldiers," said HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth in a statement. "Abu Ghraib resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to cast the rules aside."
Until the publication of the Abu Ghraib photographs, administration officials took at best a "see no evil, hear no evil" approach to reports of detainee mistreatment, the report added. From the earliest days of the war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq, the U.S. government has covered up or failed to act on repeated, serious allegations of torture and abuse, it said.