After nine years of fits and starts, dismissals and reinstatements, a federal lawsuit filed by one-time inmates at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq against civilian interrogators who worked there is moving ahead.
"We're not dismissing this case. It's going to go forward," U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said at the conclusion of a hearing Friday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. She said she'll issue a written ruling at a later date outlining her rationale.
It's been 13 years since photos documenting abusive treatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib first became public, and nine years since the lawsuit was first filed against CACI Premier Technology, which supplied civilian interrogators to the prison on a contract basis.
The three inmates who are plaintiffs in the case allege the CACI interrogators directed a conspiracy in which they ordered military police to soften up the detainees for questioning with tactics that amounted to torture, including beatings, sleep deprivation, forced nudity and sexual humiliation.
The lawsuit has been dismissed multiple times, only to be reinstated each time by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
The most recent dismissal came when a judge ruled that the lawsuit involved an inherently political question, and could not be settled by the judiciary, because it would require a judge to question the war making powers and policies of the executive branch.
But the appeals court ruled that CACI could not escape liability under the political questions doctrine if it acted unlawfully at Abu Ghraib, even if CACI was carrying out the military's wishes in doing so.
Brinkema reiterated at Friday's hearing that CACI would be held responsible for unlawful conduct, even if it was carried out at the military's behest.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the lawsuit on the inmates' behalf, argues that the CACI interrogators played a key role in the abuse.
"There was a leadership vacuum" at the Abu Ghraib hard site where the abuse took place, said Robert LoBue, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. "CACI interrogators assumed a de facto position of control. We think they set the example, set the tone."
CACI maintains it is not liable, in part because its interrogators were not the ones who inflicted the punishment on the inmates. And CACI's lawyers say they are hamstrung in defending against the accusation that the company's interrogators conspired to abuse the inmates because much of the evidence in the case is classified, and the U.S. government has been unwilling to provide it.
Brinkema, though, expressed skepticism about CACI's claims that the government's intransigence is inhibiting its defense. She said she thought CACI ought to be able to account for the actions of its own interrogators without relying on government documentation.
Brinkema swept aside another major obstacle in the lawsuit earlier this year when she ordered that the Abu Ghraib plaintiffs could give depositions overseas without coming to the U.S. A previous judge had ordered the ex-inmates to come to the U.S. to give their depositions, but they were unable to obtain visas to travel here.
After Friday's hearing, plaintiffs' lawyer Baher Azmy said Brinkema's ruling represented an important milestone in the case.
"The court has sent an important message that there can be accountability for torture, a vital step for our clients who have yet to see justice," Azmy said.