(AFP) – Oct 3, 2007
WASHINGTON (AFP) — A US judge heard arguments Wednesday on whether Iraqis who say they were tortured by interrogators and interpreters at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison can sue private companies for sending such people to Iraq without proper training.
The suit, filed in 2004 by a dozen former prison inmates and the family of a man who died in detention, targets the firms Titan, which provided interpreters, and CACI International, which supplied interrogators.
Last year, federal judge James Robertson threw out the part of the lawsuit that targeted the specialists on the grounds that it had not been filed near their places of residence, but he allowed charges against the companies to stand.
However on Wednesday, the two companies asserted they could not be held liable for actions by their employees because the latter had acted under the control of the US government, more specifically, the US Army.
"The substance of the test is simple: who is telling these people what to do," argued Ari Zymelman, an attorney for Titan.
He said his client was largely responsible for providing administrative support such as salaries, vacations and insurance.
Bill Koegel, an attorney for CACI International, said even though the specialists did not have weapons or wear uniforms, they were under the "complete and total operational control of the US Army."
But Susan Burke, a lawyer representing the former Abu Ghraib detainees, recalled how soldiers, who acted in the same way as private contractors, have been court-martialed and are now serving time in jail.
"What we're talking about, the tortured prisoners, is not authorized military action," she argued.
"To this day, the United States has not stepped in to say: 'These contractors were doing what we wanted them to do.'"
A ruling by the judge is not expected for several weeks, maybe even months. But if he rejects the motion by the companies, it could lead to a trial at a later date, even though some legal obstacles remain to be overcome.
The government could also intervene to attempt to block the disclosure of secret information such as the Army's interrogation techniques.
If such an attempt is successful, it could severely limit how much information can be presented to a jury to support the case.
In addition, Koegel tried Wednesday to discredit the main plaintiff, a Swedish national of Iraqi descent, who figures in court documents only under the name of Saleh.
Saleh told his Detroit lawyer that he had been sodomized, stripped naked, submitted to electrical shocks and dragged around by a collar around his neck.
He said he had also witnessed the rape and murder of numerous other detainees.
But Koegel cited an internal US Army investigation, according to which Saleh had been interrogated only once and had never been held by the units he blames for his mistreatment.
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