Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
In March, an Iraqi man came to Michigan lawyer Shereef Akeel with a seemingly outrageous claim: American soldiers and civilians at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad beat him, stole his savings, and sexually humiliated him. Other prisoners, he says, were subjected to worse. Some were raped. Others were beaten to death. Akeel, who since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been representing Detroit-area Arab-American crime and discrimination victims, was shocked. “This is way beyond what I’ve ever dealt with,” he says. About a month later, reports of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison and photos cataloging it began to appear in the mainstream media, outraging the international community. So far, much of the focus has been on punishing the U.S. soldiers involved in the abuses, but Akeel wanted to seek a means of redress for the victimized prisoners. The report on abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison prepared by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba gave him the ammunition he was looking for. In addition to verifying the abuse accounts, the May report concluded that two civilian contractors — employees of San Diego-based Titan Corp. and Arlington, Va.-based CACI International Inc. — participated in or encouraged the abuses at the prison. Titan provides Arab-language translators to the Army, and CACI was contracted for interrogation services. On June 9, about six weeks after the scandal broke, Akeel and a band of lawyers from New York and Philadelphia pulled together and reached 2,500 miles across the country to file a class action in the federal court in San Diego. Motivated by a desire to find some way to compensate the abused prisoners and facing formidable obstacles in recovering from the government, the lawyers engaged in what many believe to be something of a legal stretch. Relying on the controversial Alien Tort Claims Act, used in recent years to sue corporations for human rights abuses abroad, and RICO, a law more often used against organized crime and drug conspiracies, the lawyers made their claim that CACI and Titan participated in a “scheme to torture, rape, and, in some instances, summarily execute plaintiffs” and should be made to pay for the prisoners’ suffering. In addition to monetary relief, the plaintiffs want Titan and CACI barred from all future government contracts. Titan and CACI have forcefully denied any wrongdoing, but both have lawyered up: Titan has hired Williams & Connolly partner and former Secretary of the Air Force F. Whitten Peters, while CACI has retained Steptoe & Johnson partner J. William Koegel Jr. Neither lawyer will comment on the suit. In a press release, CACI called the lawsuit a “malicious recitation of false statements and intentional distortions.” The statement also said the company was considering seeking sanctions against the lawyers who filed it. FIRST CONTACT Shereef Akeel never thought he would end up a civil rights lawyer. Although Akeel, 39, was born in California, he speaks with a soft accent — the remainder of an early childhood spent in Egypt. His father, an engineer, moved the family to Egypt when Akeel was 6 years old. They returned about four years later to Sterling Heights, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, where Akeel would spend the rest of his childhood and attend high school. The greater Detroit-area’s Arab-American population is perhaps the largest in the United States. “I had a very good upbringing [in Michigan],” he says. “I definitely did not see the things you hear about today.” But that changed after 19 Arab men hijacked four American airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001, killing thousands in the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil. Within days of the attacks, Akeel got a phone call from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. They had a case for him: A man named Ahmed Esa, of Yemeni descent, was fired when he showed up for his welding job the day after the attacks. “Go pray in your mosque. Go pray with your leader,” he was told, according to an October 2001 New Yorker story. At the time, Akeel was a property insurance lawyer only five years out of law school. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he worked as an accountant and got his M.B.A. before earning his J.D. from Michigan State University College of Law in 1996. Akeel knew little about civil rights law, but he took the Esa case anyway. Now, he spends all of his time representing Arab-Americans who have been the victims of workplace discrimination, police mistreatment, and other civil rights abuses. “My practice has been turned upside down,” Akeel says. “Many Americans are misdirecting their anger to other Americans who happen to be of Arabic descent.” So in March, when an Iraqi-born Swedish citizen was looking for a lawyer near his mother’s home in Dearborn, Akeel was on the short list. The man, whom Akeel will only identify as Mr. Saleh, came to Akeel with his Abu Ghraib story. He was beaten. Urinated on. Sodomized. Akeel believed Saleh, who also talked about having been a prisoner at Abu Ghraib under Saddam Hussein for his opposition to his regime and the Baath party. He was arrested upon returning to Iraq in September 2003 and was released from Abu Ghraib in December. “He was telling me things, and I was just astounded,” says Akeel. “It was so out of the ordinary that I was convinced that he would not just make it up.” Indeed, it appears he did not. On April 28, CBS aired photos of detainees at Abu Ghraib in sexually humiliating poses on “60 Minutes II,” confirming many of the abuses Saleh had described to Akeel. In light of the new information and the release of the Taguba report, Akeel began to research ways to get reparations for his client. On May 12, he filed a request for more than $100,000 in compensation from the U.S. Army Claims Service in Fort Meade, Md. News reports of Saleh’s claim were immediate, and so were the phone calls to Akeel from relatives of other Abu Ghraib detainees. He met with family members who lived locally, and interviewed the since-released prisoners themselves over the phone. “I said, ‘Oh boy, I think the floodgates are open,’” says Akeel. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.” SUPPORT SYSTEM Meanwhile, 600 miles away, in a cramped cluster of offices on the seventh floor of a nondescript building in New York City’s East Village, the lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights were watching the Abu Ghraib scandal unfold. “We were thinking about what we were going to do,” says Barbara Olshansky, the center’s legal director. “We knew we had to do something.” For months, Philadelphia lawyer Susan Burke had been thinking the same thing. In December 2002, Burke read a quote in a Washington Post story about detainees in secret overseas facilities that made her nervous. An “official who has supervised the capture and transfer of accused terrorists” was quoted as saying, “If you don’t violate someone’s human rights some of the time, you probably aren’t doing your job.” Burke, now a partner at an old-line corporate firm, Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, began to worry that the military might be torturing detainees in Guantanamo and Afghanistan. Burke, 41, is a litigator who spends much of her time defending health care companies against fraud charges. A former partner at Covington & Burling in D.C., she’s been involved with human rights organizations such as Amnesty International since law school. The secrecy and reports of mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo spurred Burke to action. With associates from her firm and a professor and law students from the University of Pennsylvania, she researched remedies for torture victims. Burke reached out to the Center for Constitutional Rights to make sure they weren’t duplicating efforts. Soon after she got in touch with the center, Burke saw the images of Abu Ghraib. Naked prisoners in human pyramids. American soldiers posing with dead prisoners in body bags. “I felt guilty,” she says. “Here is something I feared had been happening, and I had not yet done something.” When the center began to craft a strategy, Burke and her firm offered their services pro bono. PRIVATE EYES Overwhelmed by the breadth of the scandal, Akeel wanted to find a way to consolidate his clients’ cases — nine in all. Steven Watt, an international human rights fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, called Akeel to explain the center’s mission. After numerous conversations and analysis of anti-torture laws and evidence supplied by the leaked Taguba report, the mishmash group of lawyers had a lawsuit. They filed it on behalf of the nine individual plaintiffs and a potential class of 1,000 on June 9 in the Southern District of California in San Diego, where Titan is headquartered. Because his claim had already been filed with the Army, Saleh could not be one of the plaintiffs. The lawsuit charges CACI, Titan, and two individual employees of the companies with a laundry list of offenses. The two most prominent are the civil RICO claim and an Alien Tort Claims Act claim. “These companies have no accountability, only to their shareholders,” says Olshansky. “There’s just nobody watching anybody.” RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, was designed to punish enterprises that profit from illegal activity. The plaintiffs accuse CACI and Titan of conspiring to commit illegal racketeering activity in Iraq by murdering, assaulting, kidnapping, and abusing prisoners. The Alien Tort Claims Act is a 1789 statute that gives federal courts jurisdiction, in certain circumstances, of overseas tort claims that occurred in violation of international law. Originally passed to signal that the infant United States would not become a haven for pirates, it has in recent years been used to sue viola-tors of international human rights law in U.S. courts. The lawyers considered filing a suit against the federal government for the soldiers’ actions, but the right to sue the government for tort claims is limited. Olshansky says they are still researching their options. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified monetary damages and want the defendants barred from all future government contracts. But, Olshansky says, the message sent by the lawsuit may be more important than the money to the abused. “We have to do something for the people who are still incarcerated there,” she says. CIVILIAN CLAIMS The complaint is a hard read. Specific abuses alleged by each of the nine individual plaintiffs are listed in detail. Plaintiff Ahmed was forced to watch his father tortured to death. Plaintiff Ismael was stripped and attacked by dogs. Plaintiff Sami was repeatedly kicked and beaten. But the complaint contains no specific allegations that individual Titan and CACI employees actually abused the prisoners. Akeel maintains they will find evidence of such conduct during discovery. In statements denouncing the lawsuit, both Titan and CACI point to a lack of evidence implicating their employees in this lawsuit. But Akeel says his clients have made it clear to him that civilians at the prisons were involved in the abuses. “One of the common denominators they narrated to me was that the personnel were either dressed in military or civilian clothing,” he says. Observers and experts in international law and government contracts law have differing opinions on the viability of the case. “The legal issues here are extremely interesting, and everybody will watch this,” says Robert Burns, an international business partner in the D.C. office of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy. But “it’s a lawsuit looking for a theory.” Burns, whose clients include government contractors but none of the ones implicated in the abuse scandal, says the plaintiffs will have to argue that the contractors were “aiding and abetting” American forces. But Michael Hausfeld, a veteran of Alien Tort Claims Act litigation who in November 2002 filed a claims act lawsuit against 23 corporations seeking reparations for apartheid in South Africa, says the prisoners’ claim is “highly viable.” “It puts companies directly on notice when they exceed customary international law in carrying out their corporate responsibilities,” says Hausfeld, of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll. Titan spokesman Ralph “Wil” Williams stresses that the Titan employees at Iraqi prisons are simply translators who never had any control over how prisoners were handled. But Akeel contends just the act of communicating abusive orders from soldiers and interrogators makes the translators liable. “My client does not speak English. Who told him what to do?” asks Akeel. “Without the facilitators, the information could not be communicated to the detainees.” Both Titan and CACI also deny the racketeering claim. According to the complaint, Titan and CACI formed a conspiracy to “make money selling interrogation services to the United States in order to obtain competitive advantage in the market.” “We have no contractual arrangement whatsoever with CACI for our linguist services in Iraq,” says Williams. Titan’s contract for linguists, however, is under review by the Army. Also, the company’s pending $1.66 billion acquisition by defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp. appeared to be close to collapse last week. Jody Brown, a spokeswoman for CACI, declined to comment beyond the company’s press release, which says that CACI never engaged in any conspiracy to abuse prisoners. ALIEN ATTACK The Center for Constitutional Rights and its president, Michael Ratner, have a history of pushing groundbreaking lawsuits. The center has been a leading advocate of using the alien tort act to punish human rights abusers. In fact, it was Ratner who helped resurrect the long-dormant statute. In 1981, he prevailed in a suit in U.S. courts against a Paraguayan police officer for the torture and murder of a 17-year-old Paraguayan boy. And in 1996, the center, along with several other human rights groups, brought the first claims act lawsuit against a corporate defendant — the Unocal Corp., which they said was liable for human rights abuses committed by the Burmese military supervising construction of an oil pipeline the company partly owned. Last fall, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs, Burmese citizens, had a right to bring the suit in the United States. The Unocal decision forms the foundation for the suit against Titan and CACI. Should the prisoners’ class action survive and ultimately be appealed, it would be heard by the 9th Circuit. The center’s Ratner, a veteran of drawn-out litigation, knows just how tough this contest will be. “I expect that it’s going to be a hard fight,” he says. “These are difficult cases because they throw everything at you.” His small staff, along with Akeel, Burke, and the cadre of associates from her firm, will focus for now on gathering evidence that links CACI and Titan to the abuses and gathering more plaintiffs. But it won’t be easy — they are thousands of miles from Iraq, and many of their potential clients speak no English. Akeel is undaunted. He sees the lawsuit as an example of America at its best, a place the abused can find not just refuge but redress. “Even in these sad days, there’s a lot of good,” he says.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.