Fri, Oct 22, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraqis take contractors to court over Abu Ghraib

PRISON ABUSE In an attempt to hold civilian contractors responsible for torture, 13 people have filed suits against firms contracting services to American forces in Iraq


Weeks before anyone published the now-infamous photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Shereef Akeel, an Egyptian-American lawyer working outside Detroit, received a strange visitor. The caller, an Iraqi with Swedish citizenship, walked into Akeel's office one day in March to tell a horrible story: He had been tortured by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

"Abu what?" Akeel asked.

The visitor, whom Akeel will identify only as "Saleh," explained he had been held at Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein's most notorious prison, not once, but twice.

The first time, he said, was for opposing Saddam's regime. After his release, he fled to Sweden. But in September of last year, he said, he returned to Iraq, answering the US' call for expatriates to come home and rebuild their country.

He crossed the border from Jordan in a Mercedes loaded with US$70,000 in cash, he said. He was stopped by Americans who took his car, his cash, and threw him into Abu Ghraib, he said. There he remained for three months, he said, and he never saw his car or his money again.

His story is among the worst told by 13 Iraqis who have filed two unusual lawsuits -- longshot attempts to hold American civilian contractors responsible for torture in Iraq, allegations that they strongly deny.

According to Saleh, his second stay at Abu Ghraib was his worst. While being held by American civilians working at the prison, Saleh claimed:

His genitals were beaten with a stick and then tied by rope to the genitals of other prisoners. A guard pushed one man down, causing the others to fall like dominoes.

He was beaten, shocked with electricity, forced to masturbate before others, dragged by a belt tied around his neck, and pistol-whipped.

He heard the screams of an Iraqi woman being raped by a US guard.

He saw other male prisoners beaten and watched a guard shoot into a crowd of detainees, killing at least five men, including one he had befriended.

After the Americans released him, Saleh again fled to Sweden. In March, he traveled to Michigan to visit his mother. It was there he heard about Akeel, who had gained prominence after Sept. 11, 2001, for filing anti-discrimination lawsuits on behalf several members of Detroit's large Arab-American community.

After Akeel accepted Saleh's case, word spread. Relatives of other detainees began calling, Akeel said, and he soon had more clients than he could handle. The case was getting too big.

He sought help from The Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based organization dedicated to racial equality. In June, they filed a lawsuit in San Diego, California, on behalf of eight Iraqis -- including Saleh and a widow who said her husband was killed at Abu Ghraib -- and a potential class of more than 1,000 people. The suits were filed not against the US military but against giant American firms providing interrogators and translators to occupying forces in Iraq.

One month later, on the other side of the country, other lawyers filed a similar lawsuit in Washington, DC, on behalf of five people, former prisoners and, again, a woman who said her husband was killed in custody.

The 13 Iraqis all claim they were imprisoned and interrogated by Americans, but never charged with any crime. Some were held for days, some for months. The federal lawsuits allege prisoners were killed, raped and tortured at prisons including Abu Ghraib, an adjacent facility at Camp Ganci and Camp Bucca in Southern Iraq.

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