WASHINGTON - A defence contractor whose subsidiary was accused in a lawsuit of conspiring to torture detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has paid $5.28 million to 71 former inmates held there and at other U.S.-run detention sites between 2003 and 2007.
The settlement in the case involving Engility Holdings Inc. of Chantilly, Virginia, marks the first successful effort by lawyers for former prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other detention centres to collect money from a U.S. defence contractor in lawsuits alleging torture. Another contractor, CACI, is expected to go to trial over similar allegations this summer.
The payments were disclosed in a document that Engility filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission two months ago but which has gone essentially unnoticed.
The defendant in the lawsuit, L-3 Services Inc., now an Engility subsidiary, provided translators to the U.S. military in Iraq. In 2006, L-3 Services had more than 6,000 translators in Iraq under a $450 million-a-year contract, an L-3 executive told an investors conference at the time.
On Tuesday, a lawyer for the ex-detainees, Baher Azmy, said that each of the 71 Iraqis received a portion of the settlement. Azmy declined to say how the money was distributed among them. He said there was an agreement to keep details of the settlement confidential.
"Private military contractors played a serious but often under-reported role in the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib," said Azmy, the legal director at the Center for constitutional Rights. "We are pleased that this settlement provides some accountability for one of those contractors and offers some measure of justice for the victims."
Jennifer Barton, a spokeswoman for L-3 Communications, the former parent company of L-3 Services, said the company does not comment on legal matters.
Eric Ruff, Engility's director of corporate communications, said the company does not comment on matters involving litigation.
The ex-detainees filed the lawsuit in federal court in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 2008.
L-3 Services "permitted scores of its employees to participate in torturing and abusing prisoners over an extended period of time throughout Iraq," the lawsuit stated. The company "wilfully failed to report L-3 employees' repeated assaults and other criminal conduct by its employees to the United States or Iraq authorities."
One inmate alleged he was subjected to mock executions by having a gun aimed at his head and the trigger pulled. Another inmate said he was slammed into a wall until he became unconscious. A third was allegedly stripped naked and threatened with rape while his hands and legs were chained and a hood was placed on his head. Another said he was forced to consume so much water that he began to vomit blood. Several of the inmates said they were raped and many of the inmates said they were beaten and kept naked for extended periods of time.
In its defence four years ago against the lawsuit, L-3 Services said lawyers for the Iraqis alleged no facts to support the conspiracy accusation. Sixty-eight of the Iraqis "do not even attempt to allege the identity of their alleged abuser" and two others provide only "vague assertions," the company said then.
A military investigation in 2004 identified 44 alleged incidents of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. No employee from L-3 Services was charged with a crime in investigations by the U.S. Justice Department. Nor did the U.S. military stop the company from working for the government.
Fifty-two of the 71 Iraqis alleged that they were imprisoned at Abu Ghraib and at other detention facilities. The other 19 Iraqis allege they were detained at detention facilities other than Abu Ghraib.
The Abu Ghraib prison scandal erupted during President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 when graphic photographs taken by soldiers at the scene were leaked to the news media. They showed naked inmates piled on top of each other in a prison cell block, inmates handcuffed to their cell bars and hooded and wired for electric shock, among other shocking scenes.
In the ensuing international uproar, Bush said the practices that had taken place at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 were "abhorrent." Some Democrats demanded that Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld resign. Eventually, 11 U.S. soldiers were convicted of crimes including aggravated assault and taking pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated.
Rumsfeld told Congress in 2004 that he had found a way to compensate Iraqi detainees who suffered "grievous and brutal abuse and cruelty at the hands of a few members of the United States armed forces." But the U.S. Army subsequently has been unable to document a single U.S. government payment for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
This week, the U.S. Army Claims Service said it has 36 claims from former detainees in Iraq, none of them related to alleged physical abuse. From the budget years 2003 to 2006, the Defence Department paid $30.9 million to Iraqi and Afghan civilians who were killed, injured, or incurred property damage due to U.S. or coalition forces' actions during combat.
In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, lawyers for the Iraqis filed a number of lawsuits against L-3 Services and another company, CACI International Inc. of Arlington, Virginia, but the cases were quickly hung up on an underlying question: whether defence contractors working side by side with the U.S. military can be sued for claims arising in a war zone. The U.S. government is immune from suits stemming from combatant activities of the military in time of war.
Courts are still sorting out whether contractors in a war zone should be accorded legal immunity from being sued, just as the government is immune.
But a turning point in the cases involving L-3 and CACI came last May. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, ruled 11-3 that more facts must be developed before the appeals court could consider the defence contractor's request to dismiss the lawsuit.
In the case against CACI, four Iraqis who say they were tortured are seeking compensation from the company, which provided interrogators to the U.S. military during the war. CACI has chosen to continue its fight against the lawsuit. Azmy said a trial is expected to take place this summer.
In its defence four years ago against the lawsuit, L-3 said the fact that the claims in the case "cannot be brought against the government means that they also cannot be brought against L-3."
"No court in the United States has allowed aliens — detained on the battlefield or in the course of postwar occupation and military operations by the U.S. military — to seek damages for their detention," the company told the federal court four years ago. "Yet these plaintiffs bring claims seeking money damages for their detention and treatment while in the custody of the U.S. military in the midst of a belligerent occupation in Iraq."
Allowing the case to proceed "would require a wholly unprecedented injection of the judiciary into wartime military operations and occupation conduct against the local population, in particular the conditions of confinement and interrogation for intelligence gathering," L-3 added.
Associated Press investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.