The Abu Ghraib case is an important milestone for justice

Three Iraqi survivors of torture at Abu Ghraib finally get the chance to have their voices heard and seek redress.

District of Columbia Anti-War Network activists take part in a demonstration to oppose "American violations of international human rights" at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by U.S. military personnel in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in this February 9, 2005 file photo. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe torture can be justified to extract information from suspected terrorists, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, a level of support similar to that seen in countries like Nigeria where militant attacks are common. To match Exclusive USA-ELECTION/TORTURE REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files
Activists take part in a demonstration to oppose US violations of international human rights at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in front of the US Supreme Court in this February 9, 2005 [File: Reuters/Larry Downing]

I was in middle school when on April 28, 2004, CBS News first made public the haunting photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I can’t remember exactly how I felt then except that it was an incredibly dark moment that rocked everyone. That has stuck with me to this day.

Almost 20 years later, I found myself in court looking at the same shocking pictures of men whose faces are hidden beneath coarse hoods. But this time, the men tortured in these photos were not nameless and faceless. I watched one survivor of Abu Ghraib testify from Iraq via videolink, and I shook hands with another outside the court, 20 minutes away from the nation’s capital where decisions were made that changed their lives.

It was two weeks before the 20th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal that the civil trial of Al Shimari v CACI finally started. I attended as an observer from the Center for Victims of Torture, which seeks accountability for torture perpetrated by the United States.

This case, brought forth by three Iraqi men – Suhail Najim Abdullah al-Shimari, Salah Hasan Nusaif al-Ejaili and Asa’ad Hamza Hanfoosh Zuba’e – is the only one by survivors of Abu Ghraib against a military contractor that has reached trial.

The three men are suing CACI International Inc, a private military contractor, over the allegation that CACI personnel “participated in a conspiracy to commit unlawful conduct, including torture and war crimes at Abu Ghraib prison”. Since 2008, the company has tried to dismiss this case more than 20 times.

The trial marks a significant moment in the legal battle for justice and redress for Abu Ghraib and, more broadly, the US torture programme. It represents a culmination of relentless efforts by the victims themselves, human rights advocates and legal experts to shed light on the dark underbelly of the US “war on terror”.

At the Center for Victims of Torture, where I work, we directly interact with survivors of torture, hear them speak about what was done to them, and how torture affected their sense of security, sense of trust, and sense of self. Torture is about intentionally breaking the human – mind, body, and spirit; it doesn’t end when the acts stop. That is why telling the story matters.

In the courtroom, the plaintiffs gave harrowing accounts of their experiences at Abu Ghraib and the effects with which they live with 20 years later.

They walked the court through the kinds of torture and humiliation they were subjected to by both military personnel and private contractors. They spoke about the lasting physical pain and injury, the difficulties in interacting with family, loss of meaningful relationships and trouble sleeping due to nightmares. They related how they could not even make eye contact with each other – a simple human act to see and be seen – because of the shame they felt over what was done to them.

Al-Ejaili, a journalist who used to work with Al Jazeera, testified how meaningful it was to him to tell his story: “Perhaps it’s like a form of treatment or a remedy.”

At court, Major-General (retired) Antonio Taguba and Major-General (retired) George Fay testified about their respective investigations into torture at Abu Ghraib. General Taguba’s 2004 inquiry was conducted before any pictures from Abu Ghraib were made public and was initiated by the military following investigations from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. General Taguba found that “incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees” and that the “systemic and illegal abuse … was intentionally perpetrated”.

General Fay’s report, released in August 2004, found that torture techniques on the detainees included the use of dogs, nudity, humiliation and physical abuse. It described torture, including “direct physical assault, such as delivering head blows rendering detainees unconscious, to sexual posing and forced participation in group masturbation”.

Both Fay and Taguba’s investigations, and a subsequent one by the US Senate Armed Services Committee in 2008, uncovered that the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were not isolated. The horrors were part of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” torture policy and reflected tactics authorised by senior officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Some of the torture practices were brought over to Abu Ghraib from Guantanamo Bay and Bagram, a military base in Afghanistan, where also detainees were tortured.

The Taguba and Fay reports implicate CACI personnel in abuses, such as tactics to “soften up” detainees prior to interrogations. One of them was Steve Stephanowicz, who, according to internal CACI emails presented at court, was a “NO-GO for filling an interrogator position”, as he was “neither trained nor qualified”. In court, General Taguba testified that Stephanowicz even tried to “intimidate” him during his investigation.

Despite this, Stephanowicz was promoted within CACI and received a 48 percent increase in salary – a trend also seen with those in the Bush administration who authorised torture.

The Fay report mentions unnamed CACI personnel who physically assaulted detainees and placed them in unauthorised stress positions. One even bragged about “shaving a detainee and forcing him to wear red women’s underwear”.

What is unique about Abu Ghraib is that, unlike Guantanamo and other CIA secret prisons, the world has seen the atrocities that took place there. And today, the world sees again through this trial, through the stories of these survivors, what was done by the US. No senior government or military official has been held accountable for crimes perpetrated by the US. No victim has received redress relative to the harm they live with every day till they die.

But this trial offers the opportunity to obtain some level of justice. Survivors of torture have the right to redress, rehabilitation and compensation, all of which I hope these three men receive. While they will never get the full justice they deserve, a verdict in their favour could get them financial compensation as well as acknowledgement of their suffering and make public CACI’s complicity.

The fight for justice does not end with this case. There is much more still that needs to be done.

Abu Ghraib and the detention centre at Bagram were officially closed in 2014, but Guantanamo remains open, with 30 men indefinitely detained in conditions that may amount to torture, according to the United Nations. Efforts to close have stalled despite the current US administration’s stated intent to do so. Nevertheless, efforts to close the detention centre and seek justice and redress for victims of the US torture programme continue.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.