Defense Contractor Ducks Abu Ghraib Liability
(CN) - A military contractor cannot be sued for its alleged role in the torture of Abu Ghraib prisoners because the Supreme Court recently immunized corporations from civil claims, a federal judge ruled.
Detainees at the infamous Iraqi prison sued CACI International and other contractors in droves in 2008, under the Alien Tort Statute, a more-than-200-year-old law that allows American courts to hear foreign citizens' claims against Americans violating international laws and treaties abroad.
The Pentagon contracted CACI to detain and interrogate prisoners. Detainees there said they were subjected to electric shocks, sexual violence, forced nudity, broken bones, and deprivation of oxygen, food, and water.
For nearly five years, the detainees have fought in various federal courts, where their cases have been consolidated and gone through several multiple decisions and appeals.
In the meantime, a group of refugees sought similar jurisdiction to take on oil giants that had allegedly conspired with the Nigerian government to brutally suppress dissent against oil exploration in the Ogoniland region.
The Ogoni refugees never got to argue their case on its merits, however, because the courts found that corporations could not be sued under the Alien Torts Statute.
Judge Pierre Leval of the 2nd Circuit had been the lone dissenting voice in the case's trajectory.
"So long as they incorporate (or act in the form of a trust), businesses will now be free to trade in or exploit slaves, employ mercenary armies to do dirty work for despots, perform genocides or operate torture prisons for a despot's political opponents, or engage in piracy - all without civil liability to victims," Leval wrote in 2010.
The Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum two months ago, effectively gutting the ability of foreigners to hold U.S. corporations liable for conduct overseas.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee found Tuesday that the high court's decision also dashed the hopes of the Abu Ghraib detainees.
"Here, as in Kiobel, Plaintiffs are barred from asserting ATS jurisdiction because the alleged conduct giving rise to their claims occurred exclusively on foreign soil," Lee wrote, abbreviating Alien Tort Statute.
Lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represented the detainees, slammed Lee's "narrow and technical" reading of Kiobel, which they claimed ignored an exception for cases that "touch and concern" the United States "with sufficient force."
Baher Azmy, the civil liberties group's legal director, said in a statement that the "ruling effectively created lawless spaces where even U.S.-based entities can commit torture and war crimes with impunity."
"The ATS and the Kiobel decision cannot be interpreted to provide safe haven in the United States to entities that have engaged in egregious human rights abuses abroad," Azmy added.
He noted that the decision came down on the International Day in Support of Torture Victims.