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September 24, 2015

End Impunity for Military Contractors

The horrific wrongs of Abu Ghraib, a former prison near Baghdad, came to light when shocking photos surfaced in 2003. Four prisoners who were held and tortured there without being charged with a crime—Suhail Najim Abdullah Al Shimari, Taha Yaseen Arraq Rashid, Salah Hasan Nusaif Al-Ejaili, and Asa'ad Hamza Hanfoosh Zuba'e, known collectively as the Al Shimari plaintiffs—are in a prolonged legal battle to hold their abusers accountable. 

In a lawsuit now entering its ninth year, the Al Shimari plaintiffs have detailed the shocking abuses they endured in interrogations led by employees of CACI Premier Technology Inc., a private military contractor headquartered in Arlington, VA. In periods of detention lasting from a few months up to a year, these four Iraqi civilians suffered oxygen, food, and sleep deprivation, electric shocks, beatings, forced sexual acts, and mock executions.

These “sadistic, blatant, and wanton abuses” are undoubtedly war crimes, punishable under both United States and international law. As a result, eleven members of the military have been criminally charged for their roles in the scandal, including former Staff-Sergeant Ivan Frederick and former Specialist Charles Graner, who were dishonorably discharged and sentenced to eight and ten years imprisonment, respectively. CACI, however, has yet to be held accountable.

Military contractors operate in a culture of impunity. In June 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia claimed that because CACI’s conduct was under the “plenary” and “direct” control of the military, the court should avoid resolving the case rather than question sensitive military judgments. Yet, as an earlier Human Rights First report on the issue explores in depth, the court holding was wrong. 

The contractor, not the military, is responsible for the direct supervision and management of its employees. Military contractors aren’t subject to the chain of command or the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the federal statute defining criminal offenses and accountability in the military justice system. Since they cannot be held accountable under the military system, they need to be held accountable in federal courts.

It makes no sense to criminally punish members of the military while for-profit civilian contractors are immune from consequence for their complicity in the same crimes. The court’s hesitancy to fulfill its crucial role as a forum of accountability for fundamental human rights violations has allowed CACI to escape blame. As a result, the Al Shimari plaintiffs and others abused by private military contractors may never receive justice.

On behalf of a group of retired generals and admirals, Human Rights First is working with counsel to submit an amicus brief asking the Fourth Circuit to reconsider the Eastern District’s decision. Human Rights First calls on the court to hold CACI publicly and legally responsible for the torture and abuses committed in Abu Ghraib and to provide the Al Shimari plaintiffs long overdue redress.