By Maha Hilal
02 October 2017
"America is the friend of all Iraqi
people." This was the sign put up at Abu Ghraib prison - one that replaced
Saddam's portrait when the US took it over as part of the war on terror.
It was Abu Ghraib prison that introduced
the world to the violent infrastructure of torture in the war on terror. In
2004, when photos emerged documenting extensive torture ranging from prisoners
on leashes to bodies piled atop each other in pyramid structure to prisoners
standing in crucifixion like postures, there were global shockwaves at the
displays of brutality.
The prison, which was the site of massive
torture, also housed a largely innocent population - approximately 70-90
percent of the prisoners were mistakenly detained, according to the Red Cross
in a 2004 report .
With no end to the war on terror, the
legacy of Abu Ghraib prison remains as important as ever, especially where a
lack of accountability continues to permeate all operations in Iraq.
In 2004, when the Abu Ghraib scandal first
emerged, former President Bush responded saying that, "Under the dictator,
prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison
became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonoured
our country and disregarded our values …"
Bush's statement unveils a particular logic
of the war on terror that continues to justify abuses to the present - moral
equivalencies, and in particular, the US's perceived moral superiority of
itself in the way it fights war. That's why prisoner abuse under Saddam was
torture, but under the US it is simply "disgraceful conduct". That's
also why Bush can talk about "our values", despite knowing that a
series of torture memos essentially provided the rationale to abuse prisoners -
that anything short of organ failure or death would, according to his
administration's new definition of torture, fall short of it.
Though former President Bush appeared
"shocked" when the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke, Eric Fair, a
former CACI contractor, in an interview with Democracy Now, on the unveiling of
his book, "Consequence: A Memoir" on his time at Abu Ghraib stated
that he was "shocked that the American people were so shocked and that
they had this kind of idea or that they were so ignorant about what was going
There are different ways to understand the
role of shock when it comes to Abu Ghraib. On the one hand, "shock"
at abuses underscores the false American narrative of the protection of human
rights and "our values" in how we engage in conflict with others. On
the other hand, shock at not knowing about abuses can perhaps be attributed to
the documentary role of the Abu Ghraib scandal in participatory humiliation -
in this case, humiliation of Muslim prisoners provoked by Islamophobia that
allows the American public to engage in their torture vicariously as a
collective act of vengeance for the 9/11 attacks. Described another way, as
Dora Apel writes "the viewer is meant to identify with the proud torturers
in the context of the defence of a political and cultural hierarchy."
Analysing the shock spectacle is important
when it comes to understanding the US's true intention to hold torturers
accountable. To date, Abu Ghraib prisoners have seen little, if any, justice
for the torture they endured. What, therefore does accountability mean for Abu
Ghraib's former prisoners?
For the United States in the war on terror,
accountability has meant little other than prosecuting the so-called "bad
apples" who conduct torture and/or murder in order to make the point that
they are an aberration, not a product of a system-wide policy of sanctioned
abuse in the war on terror. That's why in the case of Abu Ghraib,
"justice" has largely perceived to have been done over a decade ago,
after 11 military personnel were convicted of various crimes including
conspiracy, dereliction of duty, and maltreatment of detainees. But that has
translated into little for the victims of Abu Ghraib's torture.
On September 22, the question of justice
for the at least some of Abu Ghraib's victims and holding military contractors
from CACI accountable was revived in a Virginia courtroom in the case of
Al-Shimari v CACI et al where the Centre for Constitutional Rights was
challenging CACI's motion to dismiss the case for their role in torture at Abu
This is of particular importance as CACI
has largely evaded accountability for their direct role in the torture of Abu
Ghraib prisoners. Highlighting this point, CCR lawyer Katherine Gallagher noted
that, "there remains an accountability gap: military officers were
court-martialed for their misconduct, but the private contractors walked away
with large payments, and they continue to be awarded millions of dollars in
government contracts. This case hopefully will narrow that accountability
CACI's involvement in Iraq began in 2003
after the US military asked them to provide intelligence assistance. Within two
years of operating in Iraq, they were involved as defendants in lawsuits accusing
them of ordering and overseeing torture. Despite this fact, and prior to
concluding investigations on the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib, the US
government offered CACI an extension of their contract in the amount of 23
million dollars - accountability for torture, after all, is limited,
conditional, and sometimes rewarded for making bolder, the discourse and
infrastructure that sustains abuse in the war on terror.
Charles Graner and Ivan Frederick, the two
military police members who were convicted of charges related to the abuse of
Abu Ghraib prisoners specifically named CACI contractors Daniel Johnson and
Steven Stefanowicz as ordering various types of abuse of prisoners.
Despite these allegations, CACI whose
tagline is ironically, "ever vigilant," claimed not to know who
exactly among their contractors were stationed at Abu Ghraib at the time of the
infamous scandal and had done nothing in the way of uncovering this
information. However, CCR argued - and the judge agreed, that only a handful of
contractors - those working at Abu Ghraib's "hard site" at the time
of the plaintiffs' abuse, needed to be questioned.
While underscoring CACI's role in torture
was key to this case, so too was the designation of the acts of abuse as
torture - something CACI denies. In their motion to dismiss the case, CACI
conceded that the treatment of prisoners was "deplorable", and
"undoubtedly humiliating", but resisted the label of torture.
Though their obvious interest is in
absolving themselves of responsibility, their narrative has become all too
familiar in the course of the war on terror and in the treatment of Muslim
prisoners. Torture is allowed to thrive not only because it is directed at
Muslims, but because it must rise to the most egregious levels of abuse to be
considered as such.
The Centre for Constitutional Rights,
rejected CACI's argument on torture - not only dismissing their discussion that
individual tactics of abuse cannot constitute torture, but also critiquing the
notion that what the plaintiffs endured - among other things being punched,
slapped, kicked, doused with hot water, forced into stress position for hours,
threatened with dogs, stepped on, etc over protracted periods of time, did not
have a cumulative impact amounting to torture and subsequent trauma.
"This is the first time a court has
effectively conceded that there's sufficient evidence that these Abu Ghraib
detainees endured torture or cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment,"
CCR lawyer Baher Azmy stated after the hearing Friday and Judge Brinkema's
decision to allow the case to proceed.
This case paves a promising path for
addressing and challenging torture of Muslim prisoners in the war on terror.
However, what we must continue to remember is that torture has and continues to
be sanctioned by the US government. A positive ruling in subsequent hearings
will not change this fact.
This is especially the case when the public
narrative continues to be mired with discourse suggesting that torture works as
Trump stated earlier this year or his condoning of torture in response to the
Brussels attack back in 2016. In other words, the US has not reckoned with
torture and far from that - continues to find ways to justify its insidious and
overt legal re-entry. However, this case as Azmy noted, sent "an important
message that there can be accountability for torture, a vital step for our
clients who have yet to see justice. This is a crucial ruling in a political
climate where Trump has called for bringing back widely denounced torture techniques
Abu Ghraib prison was closed in 2014 due to
security concerns. But its horrendous legacy lives on. This case brings us one
step closer to the possibility of closing the chapter on abuses at Abu Ghraib -
but this relies on the full execution of justice that is not limited simply to
prosecuting perpetrators of torture, but which extends to survivors of torture
such that they are able to finally, albeit incompletely, move on with their
lives. Without this, justice is a mere public performance to reclaim our sense
moral ground, not a real, intentional commitment to restoring the lives of
those we've harmed. But perhaps this is what American justice is really all
Maha Hilal is the inaugural Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at the Institute
for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and a coprincipal investigator of Tulane
University's Torture Trauma Initiative.