Human rights lawyers filed a class-action suit yesterday on behalf of nine former Iraqi prisoners, alleging that two companies who provided civilian interrogators at the Abu Ghraib prison conspired to torture the detainees in order to reap financial gains from the US government.
The 53-page complaint was filed yesterday in San Diego federal court by the New-York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and a Philadelphia law firm. It accuses CACI International, a Virginia-based company, and Titan Corp., based in San Diego, of conducting a ''scheme to torture, rape, and in some instances summarily execute plaintiffs" to meet intelligence-gathering quotas imposed by the US government to maintain lucrative contracts.
The lawyers said they are seeking ''significant" financial damages from Titan and CACI and to prevent the companies from receiving government contracts in the future. The suit is believed to be the first case seeking damages on behalf of Iraqi prisoners in the abuse scandal.
Statements included in the suit allege abuses that exceed what has so far been publicly disclosed by the news media. One plaintiff alleged that he was shown a photograph of a fellow detainee performing oral sex on a person in a military uniform and told that he would be similarly abused if he refused to cooperate with the interrogation, according to the suit.
''This case will, I hope, get to the bottom of the abuses that went on in Iraq," said Michael Ratner, a New York-based lawyer who also is challenging Guantanamo Bay detentions in federal court. ''All the focus right now has been on lower-level military officials and memos from higher-ups, but no one has focused yet on the fact that we appear to be subcontracting out torture."
In a statement, CACI dismissed the allegations in the suit as ''irresponsible and outrageous."
''CACI summarily rejects and denies the ill-informed, slanderous, and malicious allegations of the lawsuit that attempts to malign the work that we do on behalf of the US government around the world and in Iraq," the statement read. ''Like all Americans, we want the facts."
Wil Williams, a spokesman for Titan, called the suit ''frivolous" and said the linguists who Titan provides are not interrogators and do not have control of prisoners.
''We do not know of any government allegation on this issue, nor have we heard of any government allegation or charge against our single employee who is identified in this lawsuit," Williams said.
Seven soldiers face military criminal charges, and seven of their superiors received administrative reprimands after photos emerged from the prison near Baghdad widely documenting sexual humiliation and abuse of inmates by military police. Civilian contractors named in an internal army investigation have not been charged, because they are not subject to military law.
The case filed yesterday in conjunction with the Philadelphia law firm, Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, individually names Adel Nakhla, a Titan translator; Steven Stefanowicz, a CACI interrogator; and John Israel, employed by a Titan subcontractor.
Lawyers involved in the case said they were relying on an internal Army report issued by Major General Antonio Taguba for initial evidence against the three, but hoped that more evidence would be obtained from the companies and the government as the case proceeds.
Shereef Akeel, a Detroit-based lawyer working on the case, said that he interviewed the plaintiffs by telephone after family members contacted his office, but that he had never met them. He said they had only a physical description of their alleged abusers and did not know their names.
The plaintiffs include a 55-year-old schoolteacher referred to as ''Jane Doe Number Two," a 56-year-old Baghdad businessman who had reconstruction contracts with the US government, and the estate of a 63-year-old man named ''plaintiff Ibrahiem," who the lawsuit alleges died in US custody after abuse witnessed by his son.
The lawsuit alleges that a detainee identified as ''Ismael" refused to answer a question during interrogation and was shown a photograph of ''a young boy, aged 12-15, being sexually molested by a person in a United States' uniform" and another photograph of a detainee he knew ''being forced to perform oral sex on a person in a United States uniform."
Despite a Justice Department inquiry into one unnamed civilian contractor, there have been few signs that companies or their employees would face civil or criminal penalties. Legal specialists have debated which laws might apply to the contractors since the scandal broke in April.
Ratner's team seeks to use the Alien Tort Claims Act, a statute that allows noncitizens to sue for violations of international human rights law no matter where the incident occurred, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law originally designed to prosecute the Mafia and other organized-crime groups by making it illegal to benefit from criminal enterprises. It has been commonly used since the 1980s against corporations, terrorist organizations, and protest groups.
But the RICO law only allows for economic losses to be recovered, not personal injuries or compensation for pain and suffering, said Jeffrey Grell, a Minnesota-based lawyer who specializes in RICO claims. Only the theft of funds from the detainees, which in one case was alleged to have amounted to more than $65,000, would be recoverable under RICO, he said.
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com.