In a very important ruling, an en banc panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that private military contractors working in Iraq are not covered by the immunity given to soldiers, thus allowing a lawsuit against a group of contractor for torture and war crimes to continue. The Center for Constitutional Rights issued this press release:
Richmond, VA – Today, a federal appellate court dismissed the appeals of two private military contractors who had argued they were immune from litigation when they engage in torture. The corporate defendants, CACI and L-3, have argued that they should receive the same protections as the United States government and that, therefore, any of their wartime activities – including torture – are similarly beyond review of the courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, remanded the cases to the district courts that had previously rejected the corporations’ novel claims of immunity, in order to allow fact-finding to proceed. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is co-counsel on the cases, which were filed in 2008.
“Today’s ruling provides an opportunity for victims of torture at Abu Ghraib to tell their stories to an American court and to obtain justice from the private military contractors who played such a prominent role in one of the most shocking episodes of abuse in recent American history,” said CCR Legal Director, Baher Azmy, who co-argued the case.
The corporate defendants in the consolidated cases, who were hired to provide interpretation and interrogation services, are alleged to have subjected the plaintiffs to electric shocks, rape and other forms of sexual assault, forced nudity, broken bones, and deprivation of oxygen, food and water. The two cases were brought on behalf of 76 Iraqis who were subjected to brutal, sadistic acts in detention centers Iraq by employees of the corporate defendants. Court martial and other testimony from soldiers convicted of serious abuse in Iraq directly link both companies to instances of torture. All of the plaintiffs were released from detention without charge.
Said Susan Burke, lead counsel on the case who also participated in oral argument before the full court, “The ruling is especially important in light of the unprecedented rise in the use of private military contractors in war zones. Ultimately, these cases should be about whether the actions of the defendants constituted war crimes and torture in violation of the law and not about whether or not the perpetrators should receive impunity even if they engaged in torture.”
In December, a coalition of groups, including retired military officers and human rights NGOs and experts, filed amicus briefs arguing that for-profit corporations cannot be considered equivalent to U.S. soldiers and should face justice under traditional legal principles that govern illegal conduct. The military officers’ brief expressed concern that “persons engaging in shocking behavior that the U.S. military does not itself tolerate for its own members have broad impunity from accountability.”
En banc appellate review, by all judges on a federal appeals court, is a rare occurrence, reserved for cases in which the issues raised are deemed to be of particular legal and constitutional importance. Fourteen judges heard the appeal, with 11 of the judges deciding in the plaintiffs favor.
Soldiers should not be immune when it comes to torture or war crimes either, of course. That is, after all, why we call them war crimes.