Judge declares mistrial in lawsuit filed by former Abu Ghraib prisoners

Eight-member civil jury deadlocked on accusations that civilian interrogators conspired in abusing detainees in Iraq

An inmate in Abu Ghraib talks to a military police officer at the prison, on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004. AP
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A judge declared a mistrial on Thursday after a jury said it could not reach a verdict in the trial of a military contractor accused of contributing to the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq two decades ago.

The mistrial was called after the jury deliberated for eight days – longer than the trial.

The eight-member civil jury in Alexandria, Virginia, was deadlocked on accusations that the civilian interrogators who were supplied to the US Army at Abu Ghraib in 2003 and 2004 conspired with soldiers to abuse detainees, “softening them up” for questioning.

The trial was the first time a US jury heard claims brought by Abu Ghraib survivors in the 20 years since photos of their abuse – including smiling US soldiers inflicting it – shocked the world during the American occupation of Iraq.

Reston, Virginia-based military contractor CACI had denied that it was complicit in the inmates’ abuse.

It said that its employees had minimal interaction with the three plaintiffs in the case and that any liability for their mistreatment belonged to the government, not CACI.

Jurors told the Associated Press that a

Most of the panel sided with the plaintiffs, jurors told AP, but they would not say exactly how many.

The jury sent out a note on Wednesday afternoon saying it was deadlocked, and indicating in particular that it was hung up on a legal principle known as the “borrowed servants” doctrine.

CACI, as one of its defences, said it should not be liable for any misdeeds by its employees if they were under the control and direction of the Army.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers tried to bar CACI from making that argument at trial, but US District Judge Leonie Brinkema allowed the jury to consider it.

Both sides argued about the scope of the doctrine.

Fundamentally, though, if CACI could prove its interrogators were under the command and control of the Army at the time any misconduct occurred, then the jury was instructed to find in the company's favour.

The issue of who controlled CACI interrogators occupied a significant part of the trial. Company officials testified that they basically turned over supervision of the interrogators to the Army.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs introduced evidence including CACI’s contract with the Army, which required the company to supervise its own employees.

Jurors also saw a section of the Army Field Manual that pertains to contractors and states that “only contractors may supervise and give direction to their employees".

In their note explaining the deadlock, the jury also said the manual was one of the pieces of evidence over which they disagreed.

The jurors who spoke to AP said there was conflicting evidence in the case about whether CACI retained control of its employees while they were in Abu Ghraib.

The plaintiffs can seek a retrial.

Asked if they would do so, one of their lawyers, Baher Azmy with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that “the current expectation is that we'll continue to fight”.

“The work we put in to this case is a fraction of what they endured as survivors of the horrors of Abu Ghraib, and we want to honour their courage,” Mr Azmy said.

The lawsuit was first filed in 2008 and was delayed by 15 years of legal wrangling and multiple attempts by CACI to have the case dismissed.

During the trial that began April 15, lawyers for the three plaintiffs argued that CACI was liable for their mistreatment even if they couldn’t prove that CACI’s interrogators were the ones who directly inflicted the abuse.

They argued that the interrogators had entered into a conspiracy with the military police who inflicted the abuse by instructing soldiers to “soften up” detainees for questioning.

The evidence included reports from two retired Army generals, who documented the abuse and concluded that multiple CACI interrogators were complicit in the abuse.

After the jury was dismissed, Ms Brinkema questioned whether a retrial would be a good idea in remarks to the lawyers, though she did not elaborate.

She said that “what happened in this case is absolutely appalling. It should never happen again.”

She also said contractors working side by side with the military should take notice that if they witness misconduct by servicemembers, they should perhaps be prepared to speak up about it.

Updated: May 03, 2024, 1:06 AM