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Abu Ghraib and the decades-long battle for justice

The victims of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib have been in a 15-year legal struggle in the US to hold those responsible accountable
An Iraqi detainee gestures toward US soldiers through bars of his cell at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, Iraq on 17 May 2004.
An Iraqi detainee gestures towards US soldiers through bars of his cell at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, Iraq, on 17 May 2004 (Reuters)

The notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which was used by US and coalition forces to torture Iraqi detainees after the US invaded the country, has been shuttered for nearly a decade.

But for Salah al-Ejaili, who was detained and tortured there, it will never be a closed chapter until justice has been delivered and the individuals who conducted the torture are held accountable. Ejaili has been fighting a legal battle in the US courts for 15 years, and while that much time would demoralise most people, Ejaili says he has never felt stronger in his fight for some form of restitution.

"The lack of closure in my case has made me even more attached and committed to attaining justice for me and all the other Iraqis who were tortured," he told Middle East Eye.

Ejaili is one of four Iraqis who filed a lawsuit in 2008 against the private military contractor CACI, accusing the company of being involved in the torture that took place there. The lawsuit cites the Alien Tort Statute, a law passed in 1789 that gives American courts jurisdiction over cases involving violations of international law.

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The case, Al Shimari v CACI, has been shuttled back and forth between the district and appellate courts over the years, with CACI on numerous occasions filing motions to dismiss the case. According to Katherine Gallagher, a lead attorney for Ejaili and the other plaintiffs, the judge said that a ruling will be delivered this October.

Gallagher, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), has spent much of her career fighting cases regarding civil liberties, war crimes and torture, including several cases regarding the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib.

Some cases were lost, some were won, and some were settled outside of court. While she hopes the current cases are successful, Gallagher noted that, unfortunately, justice cannot always be delivered.

"My views on something like a settlement have evolved over the course of years. Because there are a couple of outcomes that you can have and one of them is certainly a loss across the board. And so a settlement can be some measure of justice, even if it's not the justice that you want to see," said Gallagher.

CACI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Torture and solitary confinement

From March to November 2003, Ejaili was working as a reporter with Al Jazeera, where he was covering the US invasion of Iraq.

"I was working as a journalist covering and exposing some of the crimes that the US forces had committed against Iraqi civilians at that time."

The job was both difficult and dangerous and Ejaili always operated with caution.

'Nothing can ever make up for the torture that I experienced'

- Salah al-Ejaily, former detainee at Abu Ghraib

"I operated extremely carefully. I wouldn't be alone. I would always try to operate within a group of other journalists," Ejaili said.

Yet despite his caution, in November 2003 while he was travelling to Diyala province to report on an explosion that took place, he was detained by the US military at the scene and later transferred to Abu Ghraib.

Ejaili said he was immediately detained after soldiers found out he was working for Al Jazeera. When he asked what he was being taken in for, the response was: "You know the reason".

Once there, he spent more than 40 days in solitary confinement and was also stripped naked, subject to beatings, deprived of food, and kept in conditions of sensory deprivation.

CCR alleges that CACI was responsible for the interrogation services at the prison and that several of its employees "directed and caused some of the most egregious torture and cruel treatment at Abu Ghraib".

Ejaili, who now lives in Sweden with his family, said that the torture has left him with trauma to this day, and that he still cannot talk to his children about what happened to him at the prison.

"Nothing can ever make up for the torture that I experienced, but the least that I can hope to expose them and to prevent this from happening in other places around the world," he said, referring to CACI and the other private military contractors in Iraq.

Justice delayed

Ejaili's case - the last hearing was in September 2022 - is one of several lawsuits filed against private contractors on behalf of the victims of Abu Ghraib.

The first case was filed against CACI and another contractor named Titan Corporation (later it changed its name to L-3 Services, then Engility) in 2004, after attorney Shereef Akeel had met Haidar Saleh. Saleh was an Iraqi national who was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib after returning to the country following the fall of the Saddam Hussein government.

The lawsuit, which went on to be filed on behalf of over 250 Iraqi civilians, was ultimately dismissed in 2011. But despite the loss, other cases have led to settlements for the victims.

"Even though we have had losses, we've also had wins as far as bringing increased recognition to what happened," Akeel told Middle East Eye.

"The case isn't just measured by dollars and cents. When folks are held to account before the media, or when folks are court-martialed in the army, or when bills are passed, or when courts find that a case can be brought. These are multiple avenues or forms of victory to hold folks accountable for the atrocities they committed."

For Akeel, the legal fight for accountability has lasted more than 19 years now. But like Ejaili, the delay has only provided the attorney with a greater need to push for justice.

Private military contractors

The war in Iraq was run in part by private military contractors. In 2004, there were 15,000 private contractors working in Iraq for the US military, ranging from small firms that provided commandos for hire to giant corporations responsible for maintaining the military's supply chains.

"The war in Iraq was in many ways, a war for profit. It was a war about resources and about money. So the contractor piece and contractor accountability was a piece that we felt was important to highlight," Gallagher told MEE.

The US military's extensive reliance on these contractors had blurred the lines between soldiers and civilians, often leading to major issues of accountability when cases of abuse or illegal conduct occurred, or when people were killed.

'A victory against this company would set an important precedent'

- Salah al-Ejaily, former detainee at Abu Ghraib

One of the most famous military contractors operating in Iraq was formerly known as Blackwater, founded by Erik Prince. In September 2007, members of the company opened fire in Baghdad's crowded Nisour Square, in a bloody massacre that caused an international scandal and heightened resentment of the American presence in Iraq.

Gallagher, who worked with CCR on a lawsuit against Blackwater over the September shooting that killed 17 people, said that in the case of Abu Ghraib, the military employed private companies because they were unprepared for the military invasion of Iraq.

"The US went to war, wholly unprepared. It went into this invasion not anticipating what would follow," she said.

Ejaili said that while he was being held at Abu Ghraib, it was difficult to tell at times who was an American soldier and who was a contractor. There were certain signs that indicated a person was a part of the military, such as a name badge and some form of insignia, but oftentimes, the lines appeared to be blurry.

"But it was hard to know 100 percent and to distinguish clearly between the contractors and soldiers," he said.

The former Al Jazeera reporter hopes his lawsuit will eventually succeed in court, and set a precedent in which private defence companies can be held liable for committing rights abuses.

"I knew from the beginning that a victory against this company would set an important precedent where all private military contractors committing human rights violations around the world could be brought to justice too."

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