The U.S. Marine was seen shouting at a large group of people who gathered outside Abu Ghraib prison on May 12, 2004. These individuals were attempting to gain information about their family members, and had hoped to obtain an appointment slip for the future.
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, titled “shock and awe” and the ousting of Saddam Hussein, American personnel such as special forces, private contractors, and intelligence agents had already commenced apprehending suspects in the anti-terror campaign. By the time American troops landed 20 years ago, the mistreatment of perceived enemy combatants had already been in place, and it would be perpetuated when they were in Iraq.
As many as ten thousand Iraqis during the early stages of the war experienced mistreatment in places of interrogation and detention. This mistreatment, which is now commonly referred to as torture, was inflicted by CIA agents, military intelligence, military police, private contractors, special operation, and ordinary soldiers.
In 2004, when the public was provided an insight into the underground system of torture from Afghanistan to Cuba, photographs from Abu Ghraib prison revealed men being subjected to humiliation and degradation. They were seen leashed like animals, electrocuted, beaten and piled into pyramids, with military personnel smiling and giving a thumbs-up over the bodies.
When the news of the scandal broke, officials described Abu Ghraib as an isolated case, attributed to “a few bad apples”. President George W. Bush publicly declared “We do not torture”. Even when the CIA’s clandestine prison system was exposed, Bush and his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, held firm to their violations of the Geneva convention.
As is typical in the US, those in the highest positions of authority pretended to not know about the torture policies and thus evaded any sort of responsibility. No criminal charges, no personal or professional consequences, no travel restrictions, and no sanctions were imposed on those higher up in the chain of command. The majority of the blame fell to the low-ranking soldiers at Abu Ghraib, Camp Nama, and other places. Only eleven US soldiers were convicted of torture at Abu Ghraib and a few more were subject to disciplinary action – the only justice for Iraqi victims of torture that the American military could deliver.
Maha Hilal, director of the Muslim Counterpublics Lab and author of “Innocent Until Proven Muslim,” told The Intercept that the U.S. could begin to make amends for the terrible violence it has inflicted on Iraq by apologizing to and providing recompense to the survivors of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison. Without taking these steps, Hilal notes that any other effort towards justice will be empty and insincere.
Defense contractors, who had a part in interrogations and torture, were not held accountable. The only successful litigation to date was a $5 million settlement to hundreds of Iraqis, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights in a historic case. 20 years later, the CCR is again suing CACI – the security firm accused by the four former Abu Ghraib inmates of directing their torture – in an effort to bridge the gap between US military personnel and private contractors. (CACI has denied the charges.)
Baher Azmy, the legal director at the CCR, explained to The Intercept that this legal case is only a minor part of the atrocities of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which included the displacement and death of many thousands of people. He continued that high-level Bush administration officials have not been held accountable for the lies they told and the violence they inflicted on the Iraqi people, so this legal action is just a small chapter in the overall story.
Azmy reported that, despite 15 years of litigation, a trial date has yet to be set for CACI’s case. He noted that CACI has attempted to have the case dismissed, but those efforts have been unsuccessful. He further added that, remarkably, their clients are still hopeful in the U.S. justice system and wish to present their story to a U.S. jury.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, according to an investigation, discovered that a large portion of the men who had been detained across Iraq following the invasion were not guilty. Military intelligence officers approximated that somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of those “taken into custody in Iraq” had been wrongly apprehended.
On the eve of the Iraq War’s anniversary, Salah Hasan, a plaintiff in the CCR suit who experienced Abu Ghraib, stated to The Intercept that he believes justice begins with disclosing all the facts surrounding the torture and officially recognizing them on the part of the United States, in addition to offering reparations to those who were wrongfully tortured.
In November 2003, a producer for Al Jazeera, Hasan, was apprehended and moved through multiple detention locations in U.S. custody, with his colleague from the news channel, and arrived at Abu Ghraib. While there, he was stripped, kept upright and hooded, and confined for long stretches of time. He described being kicked, hit, denied food and being kept unclothed, in solitary confinement for almost two months.
Hasan recollected the years since his release from Abu Ghraib prison, noting how the name continues to evoke feelings of horror, fear, and anxiety. He could not bring himself to tell his children the details of his experience due to the pain it caused him and the desire to spare his children from suffering because of him.
A family member of an Iraqi detainee held by American authorities at the Abu Ghraib jail had their hand to their face on May 8, 2004, as another one showed a newspaper with images of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners inside the prison situated 30 kilometers west of Baghdad. Numerous Iraqis assemble outside of the prison every day hoping for news about their loved ones. The photograph was taken by Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images.
Results of Action
Around a decade after the Abu Ghraib scandal came to light, further photographs were made available due to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Pentagon had to turn over 198 pictures, which were chosen to be the least offensive of the 2000 held back, according to the ACLU report.
Time and time again, attempts to conceal American wrongdoings, such as torture, have been made. Throughout the years, the public has yet to witness the complete report of the Senate investigation regarding CIA torture. The ACLU National Security Project has voiced its discontent towards the Pentagon’s refusal to disclose evidence.
The government has defended its decision to withhold information by citing the potential for violence against Americans and U.S. interests. Nevertheless, this rationale gives terrorists the leverage to control what citizens can know about their authorities. No democratic nation has ever been improved by concealing evidence of its wrongdoings.
The standards of what the American government can do without being held accountable are still affected by the cases of torture that go unpunished, thereby creating precedents.
The Center for Victims of Torture’s policy analyst, Yumna Rizvi, expressed to The Intercept that, in spite of the Obama administration’s policy to look ahead, the lack of accountability has thwarted any progress and hampered the U.S.’s ability to address matters concerning detainees held at Guantanamo detention facility.
She noted that the torture program still casts a dark shadow, and this has been demonstrated recently by the Pentagon’s attempts to prevent the International Criminal Court from obtaining evidence of Russian war atrocities. As a result, the United States can no longer behave as it once did and cannot honestly promote its values of human rights, justice, and responsibility.
Hasan spoke of the two-decade mark since his country was invaded, noting that in that time he has witnessed a drastic deterioration in all facets of Iraqi life: the law, health, education, politics, and people. He went on to point out that torture in prisons is an all too common occurrence that is still happening today.
He recommended that the United States of America reexamine its strategies and take responsibility for the havoc it has caused. However, it has become apparent that this is not something they are even considering.
This year, Azmy is hoping for the CCR-led struggle for some form of justice from private contractors in Abu Ghraib to finally go to trial. Hasan and the other former prisoners have desired to have the opportunity to speak before a U.S. court for the past 15 years. “I believed it was my responsibility to not stay quiet about human rights violations,” he revealed to me. “If justice is served, it will be a stride towards rectifying errors — it is my wish that additional steps are taken afterwards.”
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