The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib
The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
...the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) Taking of hostages;
(c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
The Geneva Convention/Article 3
TESTIMONY OF ABDULWAHAB, DETAINED FOR 44 DAYS BEFORE ENTERING ABU GHRAIB PRISON
Friday night at three a.m. and I was in Baghdad in Algadria area. We had come my friend Salaam and me to buy a car. I was sleeping and they entered my room. It was very dark. I think there were seven soldiers.
They entered silently. Then I heard shouting. I thought they were a gang who wanted to steal our money. They turned their helmet lights on, took us to the living room, tied us up on the ground, and put hoods on our heads. I was in my pajamas and T-shirt. No shoes or slippers. The translators were wearing army uniforms, saying, “Don’t move or we’ll shoot you”
DECEMBER 26, 2002
While her kids played with their new toys and ate the last of the Christmas cookies, a quote from a U.S. administration official caught Burke’s eye: “If we are not violating people’s human rights, we are not doing our job.”
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Burke was disturbed by similar phrases appearing in the press, such as “the gloves are coming off,” indicating that her government was moving away from its longstanding prohibition of torture.
Burke began asking questions about U.S. policies in Afghanistan that might affect the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Was the U.S. government engaged in unlawful detainment and torture in Afghanistan? Was there proof of this? If so, what could be done to stop it?
“I thought I could do something,” says Burke, “I could persuade people in non-violent ways not at the barrel of a gun that adhering to the rule of law, to democracy, is better for everybody.”
Ever since her days at Catholic University law school twenty years earlier, Burke had felt that lawyers have a moral obligation to uphold the constitution.
“I’ve always had a pro-bono practice,” Burke explains. “I think lawyers have civic responsibilities that go above and beyond other people.”
As evidence mounted that American-led forces were systematically mistreating prisoners, she enlisted the help of Amnesty International, with whom she had long worked against torture by foreign governments. Assisted by law students at the University of Pennsylvania, Burke learned that American courts are able to halt torture. And in fact, they had done so in the past.
On August 8, 2005, a team of lawyers, led by Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal, filed suit against then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on behalf of twenty-four-year-old Guantanamo Bay detainee Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden. One of Burke’s central claims was that in using the phrase “War on Terror,” the Bush Administration was bound by the Geneva Convention to treat detainees humanely as prisoners of war.
ALI BABA AND THE 40 THIEVES
TESTIMONY OF ABDULWAHAB
They took us to a tennis court in Saddam’s palace and put a sign on us that said, “Al-Qaeda.”
I didn’t know what Al-Qaeda meant until the Americans came. There was a Kurdish-American interpreter there.
The Syrian interpreter said, “The American’s won’t steal. You are the thieves.”
They were joking and calling me Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
They took about twenty prisoners in two big military trucks. All of us tied together. I was still in my pajamas. It was very, very hot. There were helicopters, and more Hummers, to secure the area. They took us to the Baghdad airport.
They never asked us any questions or told us what we were being charged for.
They took us to the airport and kept us outside in the hot sun. The soldiers were holding yellow files. I saw a bit from under my hood. Then they took us into a room and made us stand against a wall for two to three hours. They took off our clothes. We still had the hoods on. They took our pictures.
For Shareef Akeel, the son of Egyptian immigrants, the War on Terror had little effect on his career as a lawyer. Until one morning in March 2003, when a man walked into his office and said, “The Americans tortured me.”
“Imagine sitting at your desk and out of the blue hearing something like that,” says Akeel in his warm Midwestern accent. “What is the man saying, you ask yourself. Because you can’t comprehend that torture could happen.”
Akeel was skeptical of the man’s story.
“But he said something so strange that I knew he couldn’t make it up. He said that he had been stripped naked. The Americans tied a rope to his genitals and attached this rope to other men. They pushed him so the other men would fall on him. Then the Americans would laugh at them. ”
Ironically, the man, Saleh, a Shiite Muslim, had been imprisoned at Abu Ghraib during the Sadaam Hussein years, and had eventually fled to the United States. After the fall of Baghdad, he returned to rebuild his country. But the honeymoon ended when he was picked up at the side of the road by American soldiers who took his car and his money and put a hood on his head.
Taguba oversaw the investigation, which examined allegations of detainee torture by members of the U.S. 800th Military Police Brigade. In his report, investigators concluded that between October and December 2003, there were numerous instances of “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib.
“The Taguba report was a gift from heaven,” says Akeel. “From there, other torture victims heard I had filed a claim, and began to contact me.”
Shortly after Saleh’s claim was filed, the Center for Constitutional Rights directed Akeel to Susan Burke in Philadelphia.
With the emails, memos, and other concrete proof of torture provided by the Taguba Report, Burke and Akeel knew they had the kind of strong proof necessary to support a lawsuit against the torturers at Abu Ghraib. They began to assemble their case.
The Taguba report linked military and private sector employees to the torture at Abu Ghraib. Two defense contractors were implicated: The Titan Corporation of San Diego, California, which provided translators, and CACI International, of Arlington, Virginia, which supplied interrogators.
“I began to think,” recounts Burke, “that perhaps the best legal strategy for the victims was to go against the corporations that had been willing to conspire and do the bidding of the military, rather than go directly against the power of the government and the military itself.”
On June 9, 2004, Burke filed a class action suit against Titan and CACI charging them with conspiring with the military and other U.S. personnel to “torture, rape, and, in some instances, summarily execute Plaintiffs.” The suit sought both monetary damages and to bar Titan and CACI from similar work in the future. It was an unprecedented challenge to the Bush administration’s outsourcing of interrogation at the prison to private firms.
A SECOND ROOM
They took us to a second room. We had to have knees bent, with our head down and hands in cuffs, against the wall, standing for five hours. If anyone moves, sits or straightens up, they wouldn’t let them.
The interrogator came. He was wearing black shorts and a t-shirt that said, “Army” He was fat, around fifty years old, a big head with big glasses, and originally from Egypt. He spoke English like an American. There was a table and a chair. One by one he called us. They opened the chains, and chained our hands to the front.
“Tell us your name, age, job. Where do you live? Married? How many children, sisters, brothers? Are you Muslim or Christian?”
“Now we will make you a party. Maybe you will like this party,” they said.
They took us to a brick room with sealed-off windows painted black, so no one could see sunlight. They brought a cassette recorder, and big speakers, and put on loud music. Sometimes rock music, electric guitar, sometimes dogs barking, sometimes children crying, and screaming, They told us, “You must run around the room. Move!”
There were six of us and we would bump, or hit shoulders or heads. They played loud music for seven hours, and we ran.
One guy stopped, and the army guy said, “GET UP! GET UP!”
AN OFFICE IN BAGHDAD
As more victims turned to him, Akeel decided he had to go to Iraq to get to the truth.
He traveled with a man named Mohammed, who had come to give Power Point demonstrations on democracy. They were nervous driving out of the airport and were almost immediately stopped.
“‘Don’t go there,’ a soldier said, pointing to the road they were about to take. ‘Because you may be hit by a street bomb.’”
Akeel remembers “the soldier might have been twenty-years-old or so, with big ears sticking out of his helmet. He was obviously scared. Remember, these American kids are thrust into a situation with a very different culture, very different language. Imagine what it’s like for Iraqis having these young men telling them what to do.”
Accompanied by bodyguards and disguised in a beard and mustache, Akeel was able to travel freely. He ventured into houses, apartments; he talked to grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, lawyers, businesspeople, and children.
“A young man told me, ‘I was finishing high school when they took me [to Abu Ghraib].’ What most people don’t understand is that they took more than a few Iraqis. It was systematic. It happened throughout the country. Another Abu Ghraib detainee told me that the Americans came to his home. He told me that as his mother tried to answer their knocks, they blew open the door and killed her. The Americans then put a hood over his head and made him walk over his mother’s body before they took him to Abu Ghraib for over a year. He was released later with an apology.”
These stories supported allegations other civilians had made. “It shed a lot more light beyond the pictures taken at Abu Ghraib. Here we were exposing an underground world of abuse and torture.”
After traveling to Baghdad, Akeel found himself going through profound changes. “I didn’t worry about being killed, ransomed. I didn’t think of that; the conduct was so egregious. I couldn’t stop thinking I went to law school. I was born a certain way, grew up with certain things, and then one day, I was called to act on my convictions.”
Burke and Akeel left their law firms to concentrate on the detainee case. They came to believe that the private contractors, driven solely by money, were particularly culpable. “This is where the danger lies,” says Akeel. “In the U.S. military, soldiers must follow orders; they must abide by the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war. If they violate those rules, they are subject to a court-martial. No such rules apply to outside contractors.”
Akeel and Burke asked themselves, “How can we hold civilians accountable?”
“DO IT,” HE SHOUTED: ABDULWAHAB
DAYS BEFORE HE WAS
They made us run on our knees and knuckles for days. We were not allowed to sleep even for twenty minutes. We had small biscuits and a bit of bread five minutes, two times a day. They gave us water from under the sun. It was very hot and there was a giant spot of light in the room that gave off a lot of heat. They used to take us to the bathroom only when we insisted. We were not eating enough to do the big one, and not drinking enough to do the small one. I did not sleep for three days.
They hurt us a lot. A soldier stood in the center of the room. If anyone stops from running he pushes them very hard and holds a piece of aluminum siding and hits it against the wooden window Boom! Boom! And shouts “Get up; get up!” and kicks people. He threw the aluminum against the wall. I was nearby and stepped on it by accident. It cut my left foot and it swelled up very big. I had to run back and forth on a swollen, bleeding foot on cement tiles. For ten days, we were made to be on our knees and knuckles. The scars are discolored on my knees. When they told me to finally stand up, I would fall over.
A soldier came with huge muscles and tattoos. They brought a stretcher. He made me put my feet on the stretcher and have my knees hanging over and hands on the ground. I fell on the ground. “Do it!” he shouted. He put me back up on the stretcher and he moved the stretcher up. I fly, hit the wall and am unconscious. They threw water on me. I woke up. In the middle of the night they took us in two Hummers to another warehouse where there was no water and prayer was not allowed. For three hours I was tied very tight with plastic cuffs. My hands got swollen and blue.
I said, “Please untie me.”
The soldier said, “Shhhh, no talking.”
But he did untie me. He cut one side and then the other.
“We are sorry this was so tight.” He spoke very nicely. “Did anyone hit or hurt you?”
But we were afraid to answer. we said, “No. No.” I had no idea who he was.
After about three hours, they took us to an information office in a tent. There were laptops, and an Iraqi interpreter who took notes. Before that I had no number and thought they were going to kill me. But instead, I learned they were taking me to Abu Ghraib.
AN EARLY VICTORY
On June 29, 2006, Katyal won a major victory when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Guantanamo detainee and Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, stating that the protections of the Geneva Convention apply generally in the “War on Terror,” not only to those like Hamdan, detained at Guantanamo, but everywhere. The ruling was both a legal milestone and a morale boost for Burke in her suit against CACI and Titan, implying that prisoner-of-war status is legitimate in Iraq.
Burke hopes the lawsuit will help Americans understand what happened at Abu Ghraib.
“It’s so uncomfortable for a person to acknowledge, ‘I am part of a torturing nation,’” she says. ‘As an American paying my tax dollars, I am in some way responsible for having intentionally inflicted this pain on innocent people.’”
“We choose to look the other way, thinking, ‘oh, it was just some humiliation done towards people who are terrorists.’ Who was it that said, ‘All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing’?”
In Part II of Wild River Review’s three part series on “The Other Side of Abu Ghraib,” Burke befriends yoga teacher Jennifer Schelter, and invites her to fly to Istanbul with Akeel and artist Daniel Heyman to record testimony from the detainees themselves and the stories behind the photos of Abu Ghraib.