A judge dealt a severe blow Friday to a long-running torture lawsuit filed against military contractor CACI by four Iraqis who say they suffered abuse at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
At a hearing in U.S. District Court, Judge Gerald Bruce Lee tossed out claims that CACI conspired to torture the four men who filed the suit. Some other claims can still go forward, including allegations that CACI aided and abetted torture, but will be difficult to prove.
The conspiracy claims were critical to the lawsuit because the four prisoners make no allegation that they suffered harm directly at the hands of CACI employees, who worked as contract interrogators at Abu Ghraib. The conspiracy claim rested on the theory that CACI as a corporation actively engaged in a plot to torture prisoners, a theory Lee said was unsupported by the facts.
"I need to have facts about what happened to these plaintiffs" that directly relate to CACI, Lee said during Friday's hearing.
Baher Azmy, a lawyer for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the plaintiffs, was disappointed by the ruling, but said Lee's decision still allows the plaintiffs to refile their claims to include facts that would support a conspiracy claim. Azmy said fact-finding is ongoing -- one of the plaintiffs gave a deposition Wednesday, as has former Staff Sergeant Ivan "Chip" Frederick, the highest-ranking soldier to be convicted after horrific photos depicting abuse suffered by Abu Ghraib prisoners were released in 2004.
Lee also dismissed parent company CACI International Inc. from the suit, leaving only a subsidiary -- CACI Premier Technology, which employed the contract interrogators -- as a defendant. The dismissal of the parent company could limit the plaintiffs' ability to collect damages if they eventually prevail.
In the lawsuit, the former prisoners claimed CACI conspired in a pattern of abuse, including mock executions, beatings, electric shocks and other humiliating treatment. One of the men said he was kept at the prison for more than four years without ever being charged before his 2008 release.
Arlington, Va.-based CACI says its employees never even came in contact with the plaintiffs. In court papers, they say it defies common sense for the company to have actively engaged in a torture conspiracy, saying the company had nothing to gain by doing so.
The lawsuit was first filed in 2008. At a preliminary stage, Lee had issued rulings favorable to the plaintiffs. At Friday's hearing, though, he said that a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, changed the legal landscape and tightened the requirements for demonstrating that higher-ups can be implicated in a conspiracy claim.
While some CACI interrogators were implicated in improper conduct in military investigations of the Abu Ghraib scandal, none has ever faced criminal charges. And CACI has never been found liable for Abu Ghraib abuses in a civil case.