WASHINGTON -- A defense 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, Va., marks the first successful effort by lawyers for former prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers to collect money from a U.S. defense contractor in lawsuits alleging torture. Another contractor, CACI, is 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 each of the 71 Iraqis received a portion of the settlement. He said there was an agreement to keep the settlement details confidential. "Private military contractors played a serious but often under-reported role in the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib," said Mr. Azmy, 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."
The ex-detainees filed the lawsuit in federal court in Greenbelt, Md., in 2008.
One inmate alleged that 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 inmates said they were raped, and many inmates said they were beaten and kept naked for extended periods of time.
In its defense 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 L-3 Services employee was charged with a crime in U.S. Justice Department investigations. Nor did the U.S. military stop the company from working for the government.
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, Va., but the cases were quickly hung up on an underlying question: whether defense 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 the issue.