Before the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq launched and the contrived toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue, U.S. special forces, private contractors, and intelligence agents had begun sweeping up suspects in the new “war on terror.” The brutalization of so-called enemy combatants was a well-established practice by the time American boots hit the ground in Iraq 20 years ago next week, and it would be carried onto Iraqi soil.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis in the early years of the war would pass through interrogation and detention sites where CIA agents, military intelligence, military police, private contractors, special operation, and ordinary soldiers inflicted abuse that no longer gets cloaked by euphemisms: It was torture.
The photos released from Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 — showing humiliated, naked men leashed like dogs, electrocuted, beaten, piled in pyramids, with smiling military service members laughing and giving a thumbs-up over their bodies — gave the first public glimpse into a secret sprawling torture apparatus from Afghanistan to Cuba.
When the scandal broke, though, senior officials painted Abu Ghraib as a singular incident, the work of “a few bad apples.” President George W. Bush told the press, “We do not torture.” Even when word of the CIA’s secret prison network came to light, Bush and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, continued to double down on their Geneva convention violations.
As is the American playbook, those in the highest seats of power, who played dumb while making torture a matter of policy, evaded any accountability. No criminal court indictments, no personal or professional repercussions, no travel restrictions, and no sanctions would flow up the chain of command. Mostly low-ranking soldiers at Abu Ghraib, Camp Nama, and beyond bore the brunt of blame. Eleven U.S. soldiers faced criminal convictions for torture at Abu Ghraib and a few more faced disciplinary actions — all the “justice” for Iraqi torture victims that the American military could muster.
“If the U.S. is truly ever interested in rectifying the horrific violence that it unleashed on Iraq, it could start by apologizing to and compensating the survivors of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison,” Maha Hilal, the director of the Muslim Counterpublics Lab and author of “Innocent Until Proven Muslim,” told The Intercept. “Until it does, U.S. gestures towards justice in any capacity will remain symbolic and disingenuous.”
Defense contractors, complicit and involved directly with interrogations and torture, walked away unscathed. The only payout so far in a civil suit was made by a firm that provided translation services at the prison; the company paid out a $5 million settlement with hundreds of Iraqis represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights in a historic case. Now, 20 years later, CCR has another ongoing lawsuit against CACI — the security firm that the four former Abu Ghraib detainees on the suit accuse of directing their torture — in a bid to bridge “the accountability gap” between U.S. military members and private contractors. (CACI denies the allegations.)
“Miraculously, they still believe in the U.S. justice system and still want to tell their story to a U.S. jury.”
“Like all legal cases, this is just one tiny piece of the horrors of the invasion and the occupation which displaced and killed many thousands of Iraqis,” Baher Azmy, legal director of the CCR, told The Intercept. “High-level Bush administration officials have not been held accountable for the lies and the murderous violence that they subjected the Iraqi people to. So, this is just one small part of the legal story.”
After 15 years of litigation, no trial date has been set for the ongoing case against CACI; Azmy said CACI has delayed the trial with a series of failed attempts to get the case dismissed. “But our clients are still here,” he said. “Miraculously, they still believe in the U.S. justice system and still want to tell their story to a U.S. jury.”
Most of the men detained across Iraq following the invasion were innocent, according to a Red Cross investigation. Military intelligence officers estimated, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, that 70 to 90 percent of the “persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq” had actually been arrested by mistake.
“I believe that achieving justice begins with revealing all the details about the torture and acknowledging them on the part of the United States, then giving reparations to the survivors who were tortured unjustly, for no reason,” Salah Hasan, a plaintiff in the CCR suit who survived Abu Ghraib, told The Intercept on the eve of the Iraq War’s anniversary.
A producer for the news channel Al Jazeera, Hasan was arrested in November 2003 and taken through various detention sites under U.S. custody, hooded and bound, before landing, with another Al Jazeera journalist, at Abu Ghraib. There, Hasan was stripped naked, kept standing and hooded, and restrained for endless hours. Over almost two months, he reported being kicked, beaten, deprived of food, and locked naked, in complete isolation for most of his imprisonment.
“Many years have passed since I got out of Abu Ghraib prison and today, and tomorrow, as yesterday, the name Abu Ghraib still raises many things in the soul: horror, fear, and anxiety,” Hasan said. “Even now, my children ask me about the details, but I can’t tell them for two reasons: The first is that the story is painful for me and the second is that I don’t want my children to suffer because of me.”
A relative of an Iraqi prisoner reacts to photos of prisoner abuse and torture by U.S. forces outside the prison in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 8, 2004.
AFP via Getty Images
More photographs of Abu Ghraib were eventually released more than a decade after the scandal first became public. An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit forced the Pentagon to hand over more evidence of the abuses suffered by Iraqis; the additional 198 photos, selected to be released, were “the most innocuous of the 2,000 that were being withheld,” the ACLU wrote.
Censorship of this sort — to cover up American crimes, in this case specifically of torture — has played out time and time again. Just as we don’t have the full picture of what happened in Iraq, we also have never seen the full report of the Senate investigation into CIA torture. The ACLU National Security Project slammed the Pentagon for the continued suppression of evidence:
To justify its withholdings, the government cites a general fear that exposing the misconduct of government personnel may incite others to violence against Americans and U.S. interests. The problem with this argument is that it gives terrorists the power to determine what Americans can know about their own government. No democracy has ever been strengthened by suppressing evidence of its own crimes.
What the U.S. government can get away with is still influenced by the continuously set precedents of torture without justice.
“Though the Obama administration’s policy was to look forward,” Yumna Rizvi, a policy analyst for the Center for Victims of Torture, told The Intercept, “the reality is that the lack of accountability has created an inability to move forward and essentially paralyzed the U.S. on many issues, including those related to the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo detention facility.”
“The legacy of the torture program is one that continues to haunt,” she said. “We’re seeing this currently with the Pentagon’s effort to block evidence of Russian war crimes with the ICC” — International Criminal Court — “because it may open doors for the ICC to prosecute Americans. The U.S. cannot move in the world like it once did; it cannot espouse the principles of human rights, justice, and accountability.”
Reflecting on the 20-year anniversary of the invasion of his country, Hasan explained that he has seen his everything — the law, health, education, politics, and people — change for the worst since the invasion. Torture in Iraqi prisons is an endless story that continues until today, he said.
“The United States of America should reconsider its policies, and at the very least, clean up the mess left behind,” he said. “The U.S. must admit that it deceived the Iraqi people. But it is clear this is not in its consideration at all.”
The CCR-led fight for a modicum of justice from private contractors in Abu Ghraib may finally head to trial this year, Azmy hopes. Hasan, and the other former prisoners, have been waiting 15 years for a chance to testify before a U.S. court. “I have found it my duty not to keep silent about crimes of human rights violations,” he told me. “If justice is achieved, it will be a step along the way to correcting mistakes — I hope that other steps will then follow.”
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