WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday reinstated a lawsuit filed by four former inmates of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, who say they were tortured by civilian military contractors.
The lawsuit, which has now been bounced between courts for eight years, had most recently been tossed out after a judge ruled the allegations could not be litigated in the judicial system. U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee reasoned that the lawsuit would improperly require second-guessing military leaders in a war zone, making it a "political question" that is off limits for the judiciary.
On Friday, though, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled unanimously that any unlawful acts committed by contractors could be subject to judicial scrutiny, even if they were doing so under the direct control of the military.
The court sent the case back to Judge Lee in Alexandria for further review. But Lee, in a one-page order issued Friday, recused himself for the case. No reason was given. Another judge will be appointed.
"We recognize that the legal issues presented in this case are indisputably complex, but we nevertheless cannot abdicate our judicial role in such cases. Nor will we risk weakening prohibitions under United States and international law against torture and war crimes by questioning the justiciability of a case merely because the case involves the need to define such terms," wrote Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, in an opinion joined by judges Henry Floyd and Stephanie Thacker. All three judges were appointed by President Obama.
The inmates say they were tortured during interrogations led by civilian contractors from Arlington-based CACI Premier Technology, Inc.
CACI has long denied wrongdoing. On Friday, the company said in a statement: "We'll proceed with our expectation unchanged: exoneration for CACI. Nothing in today's decision changes our view of the ultimate outcome."
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the four Iraqi inmates, praised the appellate court's decision.
"Today's decision reaffirms the role of the courts to assess illegality, including torture, and we are optimistic this case will finally move forward and our clients will have their day in court," the center's legal director, Baher Azmy, said in a statement.
One of the plaintiffs, Salah Hassan, said Friday in a statement: "Today, part of justice was achieved and this is something wonderful, not only for me and the other plaintiffs, but for all the just causes in the world. ... No doubt the result will be a white light in the process of justice in the world at the time."
According to the lawsuit, Hassan, who now lives in Qatar, was arrested in November 2003 and sent to Abu Ghraib. He was released in February 2004 without being charged with a crime. The lawsuit alleges he was beaten, stripped naked, threatened with dogs and suffered other abuses.
The lawsuit has faced numerous hurdles since it was filed in 2008. In addition to the legal battles, the plaintiffs have struggled to get their clients into the U.S. for depositions because the government has denied them visas.