Baghdad’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison now stands empty. Its closure, prompted by fears that it could be overrun by Sunni insurgents, along with the transfer of its 2,400 prisoners, was announced last week by the Iraqi government, which resumed control of the facility in 2006.
Yet neither the closing of the prison nor the passage of time can erase the stain created by the brutalization of inmates by American prison guards, military intelligence officers and private contractors during the American occupation.
An upcoming ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit may determine whether Abu Ghraib victims will finally get a chance to tell their stories in court. Argued last month, the appeal seeks to reinstate a lawsuit for civil damages brought years ago by the Center for Constitutional Rights against a private contractor on behalf of four Iraqis who say they were subjected to electric shocks, sexual violence, forced nudity and other assaults on their bodies and dignity.
The suit was tossed out by a district court judge based on a cramped reading of a recent Supreme Court ruling interpreting the Alien Tort Statute. The ruling did not get to the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims or the company’s denial of responsibility. Adding to the insult, the judge acceded to the contractor’s outlandish request to hold the plaintiffs liable for its legal costs.
The Fourth Circuit would deny these victims their day in court if it does not reverse that ruling, and it would discourage others with slim resources from even seeking legal recourse. It would also set a terrible precedent — going even further than the Supreme Court — to prevent American courts from hearing cases involving torture and other abuses that arise overseas but have strong connections to the United States.
It was 10 years ago this month that the Abu Ghraib scandal broke with a CBS News broadcast of chilling photographs showing grinning American soldiers abusing and sexually humiliating Iraqi prisoners. The anniversary marks two scandals. The first is the torture itself. The second is the government’s abysmal failure to provide a real measure of justice for victims.