‘They stole our future’: 20 years on, Abu Ghraib prisoners are still awaiting compensation from the United States

There is no evidence that Washington has compensated former detainees tortured in Iraq, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, which is calling on authorities to open a pathway for survivors to file claims

Abu Ghraib Estados Unidos
Archive image, broadcast in February 2006 by Australian television. The image, which has not been 100% verified, has been edited to protect the person's identity. It is one of the photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq, in 2003.AP

Twenty years after the military invasion of Iraq, everything indicates that the United States government has not compensated the people who suffered torture and other abuses during their detention in the Abu Ghraib prison and other prisons run by the U.S. military. That’s according to a report published Monday by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which found that former prisoners have tried to go to different bodies to claim compensation, but received no response.

“We have had no evidence, no data, nor is there any public information on indemnities or compensation to these former detainees who suffered torture and multiple humiliations. There may have been some kind of reparations made under the table, but we are not aware of this either. We have approached the U.S. government for information, but have not heard back from them,” Sarah Sanbar, HRW’s Iraq researcher and co-author of the report, told EL PAÍS.

“And anyone who has been to Baghdad knows that an Iraqi cannot knock on the door of the United States embassy and say that he is coming to file a complaint against the army. On top of that, these are people who left Abu Ghraib stigmatized, where it was known that the prisoners suffered sexual violence, and many opted for silence when they regained their freedom,” she added.

To support its conclusions, between April and July 2023, HRW spoke with Taleb al-Majli, an Iraqi who was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib for more than a year; three other former detainees who wanted to remain anonymous; a former U.S. lawyer who worked in Baghdad; a former member of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights and other humanitarian organizations specialized in the issue of torture. The organization also examined U.S. government documents and questioned authorities about compensation.

According to military figures, some 100,000 Iraqis were arrested by U.S. troops and their allies in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. After the fall of Baghdad, the Abu Ghraib prison, 18 miles from the capital, fell into the hands of the international coalition. The prison — which was used by Saddam Hussein’s regime to torture political prisoners — became a symbol of how the U.S. army humiliated, tortured and abused their power with Iraqi prisoners. Photos of the atrocities at the Abu Ghraib prison were leaked in 2004, and sent shockwaves across the world. Al Majli claims to be in one of the prisoners in the human pyramid of naked and hooded prisoners next to two smiling American soldiers. “Two American soldiers, one male and one female, ordered us to strip naked,” al-Majli told HRW. “They piled us prisoners on top of each other. I was one of them.”

“His story is credible. This man has documents that show that he was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib at that time, he knows the prison inside out, he cites in detail events that took place at that time,” said Sanbar.

According to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), based on statements by U.S. military intelligence officers, between 70 and 90% of people detained by the international coalition in Iraq in 2003 were arrested by mistake. This was the case of al-Majli, who was released without charges in March 2005. “We were completely powerless. I was tortured by police dogs, sound bombs, live fire, and water hoses,” he told HRW.

To this day, al-Majli remains physically and psychologically scarred by this abuse, which included sexual violence. In prison, he began biting his hands and wrists from stress and continues to do so to this day, as HRW researchers were able to verify. “It destroyed me and it destroyed my family,” he said. “They stole our future from us.”

A U.S. soldier at the Taji military base, north of Baghdad, in August 2020
A U.S. soldier at the Taji military base, north of Baghdad, in August 2020THAIER AL-SUDANI (Reuters)

For two decades, al-Majli has sought some form of redress. First he went to the Iraqi Bar Association, but they did not accept his case, then he went to the Iraqi High Commissioner for Human Rights, but was also turned away. The prisoner explained that he did not know how to contact the U.S. military to raise a claim. In June 2023, HRW wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice, but did not receive a response nor could he find any legal pathway for al-Majli to make a formal complaint.

“We are asking the U.S. government to open a pathway for these survivors to bring their case to the appropriate authorities, in total transparency, and to access compensation,” said Sanbar.

“A few bad apples”

In 2004, the then-president of the United States, George W. Bush, apologized for the “humiliations suffered by the Iraqi prisoners” at Abu Ghraib. He said “a few bad apples” were to blame for the abuse, and promised that the survivors would receive compensation.

But Sanbar argues that “torture was a systematic practice. “There was a general climate and decisions made at the top that allowed these acts,” she told EL PAÍS.

Abu Ghraib and the Iraqi prisons run by the United States were one of several Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “black sites” around the world, according to HRW. In these sites, “U.S. forces, intelligence agents, and contractors carried out torture and other ill-treatment, or so-called enhanced interrogation techniques,” the report stated, citing Afghanistan and Guantánamo as the clearest examples besides Iraq.

HRW is calling on the U.S. to investigate allegations of torture and other abuses against people detained by the United States abroad. “U.S. authorities should initiate appropriate prosecutions against anyone implicated, whatever their rank or position. The U.S. should provide compensation, recognition, and official apologies to survivors of abuse and their families,” it said.

HRW reports in 2005 and 2011 provided evidence justifying the investigation of senior members of the U.S. administration for their role in interrogations and detentions in Iraq, including Bush, his vice president Dick Cheney, then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld (now deceased), and the CIA director George Tenet.

“Every U.S. administration from George W. Bush to Joe Biden has rebuffed efforts for meaningful accountability for torture,” the HRW report concluded.

In the years following the Abu Ghraib scandal, U.S. Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibits subjecting anyone in U.S. custody or control, “regardless of nationality or physical location,” to “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” In 2009, then-president Barack Obama rescinded all Bush-era memos allowing torture. In August 2022, the Pentagon published an action plan to reduce harm caused to civilians in U.S. military operations, but it did not include mechanism for reviewing past instances of civilian harm that have gone unaddressed.

Criminal investigations

Between 2003 and 2005, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) opened at least 506 investigations into alleged abuses against people in the hands of U.S. and other coalition forces in Iraq, according to a Department of Defense document reviewed by HRW. A total of 38 of those investigations confirmed the allegations or the guilt of the accused, and 97 U.S. soldiers were sanctioned. But only 11 were referred to a court martial to face criminal charges, and only nine served prison sentences. The HRW report also found that “there is no public evidence that any U.S. military officer has been held accountable for criminal acts committed by subordinates under the doctrine of command responsibility.”

Some Iraqi victims also attempted to seek compensation via the U.S. Foreign Claims Act (FCA), intended for foreign nationals. But it has a clause that excludes reparations in combat contexts. What’s more, claims have to be filed within two years from the date of the alleged harm. The HRW said it was unable to find evidence of reparation being made under this law for the abuses suffered by Iraqi prisoners 20 years ago.

Jonathan Tracy, a former U.S. military lawyer who reviewed claims in Iraq in 2003, told Human Rights Watch that he did not know of any Foreign Claims Act payments to torture survivors by the Army. “If any of the survivors received a payment, I would doubt the Army would have wanted to use Foreign Claims Act money because it could be interpreted as an admission on the government’s part,” he said.

Until now, the only lawsuits that have been able to advance have been directed against military contractors, such as CACI, a company hired by the U.S. government to interrogate prisoners in Iraq, specifically in Abu Ghraib. CACI has tried to dismiss the case 18 times, but a trial appears increasingly likely, after a federal judge rejected the company’s latest motion last July.

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