Jury in Federal Lawsuit Deadlocks on Abu Ghraib Torture Allegations

A federal jury in Virginia said on Thursday that it was unable to reach a verdict in a lawsuit filed by three Iraqi men who said they were tortured while being held by the United States at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison two decades ago.

The jurors had deliberated for almost eight days, and with the panel still deadlocked the judge in the case, Leonie M. Brinkema of the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, declared a mistrial on Thursday.

The three plaintiffs had sued a defense contractor, CACI Premier Technology, asserting that CACI employees working as interrogators at the prison directed U.S. military guards to abuse the men in an effort to “soften” them up.

The testimony of the three men last month was the first time a civilian jury had heard allegations of post-9/11 abuses directly from detainees.

In a handwritten note to the judge on Thursday, the jury foreman wrote that the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict, largely because of differing interpretations of the evidence and of a legal defense known as the “borrowed servant” doctrine, where CACI could avoid liability by proving that its employees were under government control.

The mistrial means that the lawsuit, filed in 2008, can continue, if the plaintiffs seek another trial and the court agrees.

The plaintiffs were represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights organization, and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, a law firm in New York.

Baher Azmy, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the plaintiffs’ legal team would “pursue our right to a retrial.”

J. William Koegel Jr., CACI’s general counsel, did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2013, another contractor that had employees at Abu Ghraib settled a similar case by agreeing to pay $5 million.

The trial in the lawsuit came 20 years after the abuse at Abu Ghraib was exposed.Credit…Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

For more than a decade, CACI sought to have the case against it dismissed, filing a host of motions and appeals challenging the viability of the plaintiffs’ claims. In particular, CACI sought immunity from claims filed under the Alien Tort Statute, which permits foreign citizens to seek damages in federal court for violations of international law.

In 2013 and again in 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the statute’s scope, requiring that the conduct at issue be closely tied to the United States. CACI invoked those decisions to argue that the three Iraqi men’s lawsuit should be thrown out, but Judge Brinkema ruled that the case could proceed.

During five days of testimony, the jury heard the three plaintiffs, now middle age, describe their treatment in U.S. custody at Abu Ghraib.

One plaintiff, Salah Al-Ejaili, said he was shackled naked in a painful stress position, kept that way overnight and ordered to wipe up his own vomit the next morning. Asa’ad Al-Zuba’e said he was forced to crawl on his stomach down a hallway with a bag over his head, until his legs bled. Suhail Al Shimari said he was threatened with rape and death.

“I had no control over what was happening to me, or what would happen to me,” Mr. Al-Ejaili said.

The jury also heard testimony from two retired Army generals who had investigated Abu Ghraib. A report by one of them, Gen. Antonio Taguba, found that one of CACI’s civilian interrogators “made a false statement” and “clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse” that was carried out by U.S. military police.

The trial in the lawsuit came 20 years after the abuse at Abu Ghraib was exposed, with the publication of photos taken by Abu Ghraib guards showing military police pulling a detainee by a leash, posing beside a pyramid of naked detainees and giving a thumbs-up sign beside an ice-packed corpse.

The photos were followed by revelations that senior Bush administration officials had authorized brutal “enhanced interrogation techniques” after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But the military characterized the Abu Ghraib abuses as the misconduct of a few bad apples. Fewer than a dozen enlisted soldiers were convicted in courts-martial and sentenced to military prison.

“Everyone knew it was wrong,” said Charles A. Graner, one of the convicted soldiers who was often described as the “ringleader” of the troops committing abuses at the time. “And no one was willing to step up and stop it.”

The defendant, a subsidiary of CACI International, based in Virginia, has denied wrongdoing. None of the most damning images from Abu Ghraib show CACI contractors engaging in misconduct.

The civil trial in federal court in Virginia marked the first time a civilian jury had heard allegations directly from detainees.Credit…Shuran Huang for The New York Times
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