By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Monday revived a lawsuit against CACI International Inc, in which the defense contractor's employees were accused of directing the torture of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, said a lower court judge erred in concluding he lacked jurisdiction to hear claims by four Iraqi plaintiffs because the alleged incidents occurred in Iraq.
Monday's decision has the potential to expand legal liability for contractors who work with and undertake sensitive tasks on behalf of U.S. troops outside the country.
CACI employees had conducted interrogation and other services at Abu Ghraib. In the lawsuit, they were accused of directing or encouraging torture in 2003 and 2004, and managers were accused of covering it up.
At issue was the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 U.S. law often used to pursue claims over human rights abuses in U.S. courts.
While the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the law's reach in 2013, Circuit Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote for a three-judge 4th Circuit panel that the Iraqi plaintiffs' claims "touch and concern" the United States enough to let them go forward.
Keenan also said Congress has a "distinct interest" in not turning the United States into a "safe harbor" for torturers.
The 4th Circuit did not rule on the claims' merits. It returned the case to U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in Alexandria, Virginia, who had dismissed it in June 2013.
CACI is based in Arlington, Virginia. The company and its law firm were not immediately available for comment.
Baher Azmy, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, was also not immediately available.
SUPREME COURT PRECEDENT
Photos depicting the abuse of Abu Ghraib detainees emerged in 2004. Some detainees claimed they endured physical and sexual abuse, infliction of electric shocks, and mock executions.
Lee had ruled two months after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, said the Alien Tort Statute was presumed to cover conduct in the United States, and that violations elsewhere must "touch and concern" U.S. territory "with sufficient force" before people could sue.
In finding that the alleged Abu Ghraib violations did, the 4th Circuit pointed to factors including CACI's having won U.S. government permission to conduct interrogations and obtain security clearances, and allegations that CACI managers in the United States acquiesced in, or concealed, misconduct.
The appeals court said it could not decide whether the detainees' claims raised political questions beyond its purview, and directed Lee to review that issue.
The members of the 4th Circuit panel were appointed to their current positions by President Barack Obama.
The case is Al Shimari et al v. CACI Premier Technology Inc et al, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-1937.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Alden Bentley and Bernadette Baum)