WASHINGTON, Aug 9 (IPS) – On Apr. 16, 2006, for reasons still unknown to them, two U.S. contractors in Iraq’s Red Zone were handcuffed, blindfolded and transported to Camp Cropper, a U.S. military facility located a few miles from Baghdad International Airport.
There, Donald Vance, a Navy veteran from Illinois and Nathan Ertel, a U.S. government contractor hailing from Virginia, experienced a “nightmarish scene”, in which they were held incommunicado in solitary confinement and subject to physical and psychological torture for the duration of their imprisonment.
This Monday, nearly five years since their ordeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago ruled that the plaintiffs could move forward with a lawsuit against the person who allegedly approved the operation – former U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Held without a trial or court hearing and tortured – Ertel for six weeks, Vance for nearly three months – the plaintiffs are suing for damages rendered against them in Camp Cropper, where Rumsfeld and several other unnamed officials allegedly “developed, authorized and used harsh interrogation techniques [on them]”, thus violating their basic civil, constitutional and human rights.
Upholding a 2010 lower court ruling on the issue, the three-judge panel voted two-to-one Monday to allow the case to move forward, on the basis that “[the plaintiffs’] complaint alleges in detail that they were detained and illegally tortured by U.S. military [and] released from military custody without ever being charged with a crime.”
In the final court decision, Judge David Hamilton wrote, “This appeal raises fundamental questions about the relationship between the citizens of our country and their government,” adding that the plaintiffs were also justified in bringing a claim against the U.S. under the Administrative Procedure Act to recover personal items such as laptops and cell phones that were seized by U.S. forces prior to their detention.
“While the United States government has failed to live up to its legal and moral obligation to provide remedies for so many victims of U.S. sponsored torture, these two cases demonstrate that holding officials accountable in U.S. courts remains a possibility,” Melina Milazzo, a Law and Security Program fellow with Human Rights First, said in a press release Tuesday.
“A state of war is not a blank cheque for senior officials to authorise torture. The integrity and security of our armed forces are [only] safeguarded when those who violate our core principles and values are held to account,” Milazzo told IPS.
From corruption to intelligence to “interrogation”
The Vance-Ertel case exposes the myriad links between private contractors, U.S. forces, U.S. government officials and intelligence agencies that often converge in the dark cells of detention centres such as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Camp Cropper.
According to court documents, both Vance and Ertel were employees of the private U.S. government contractor Shield Group Security at the time of their arrest, stationed just outside the so-called safe or ‘Green’ Zone in Bagdad.
In 2005 and 2006, Vance and Ertel became increasingly aware of corruption within Shield Group Security, noting, among other suspicious activity, that the company was making payments to Iraqi sheikhs – likely to “obtain influence” with powerful local players – and accumulating a cache of weapons that was flowing steadily to officials from the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which had ties to armed militias and death squads.
Alarmed by situation, Vance and Ertel began passing information on the company, sometimes on a biweekly basis, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation – until they were whisked away to Camp Cropper in early April 2006 for “work[ing] for a business entity that possessed weapons… on its premises and [being] involved in the possible distribution of these weapons to insurgent/terrorist groups,” Ertel’s detention notice read.
According to the Chicago court’s decision, the men then endured conditions that were “perfectly consistent with torture treatments approved by Rumsfeld’s Defense Department,” including living in cells whose walls were smeared with feces, being deprived of food and water, forcibly kept awake in brightly lit rooms, and made to endure “intolerably” cold temperatures.
“Even Saddam Hussein had more legal counsel than I ever had,” Vance told the New York Times in 2006, adding that he and Ertel wrote a letter to the camp commandant claiming that, “the same democratic ideals we [the U.S.] are trying to instill in the fledgling democratic country of Iraq, from simple due process to the Magna Carta, we are absolutely, positively refusing to follow ourselves.”
At the same time, First Lieutenant Lea Ann Fracasso, spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s detention operations in Iraq, insisted that the men had been “treated fair and humanely”, adding that there was no record of their written complaints.
U.S. government’s response
Rumsfeld’s attorneys attempted to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the secretary of defence should enjoy immunity from criminal actions.
Rumsfeld also claimed that the plaintiffs should be denied recompense, since the violation of their constitutional rights occurred in a war zone.
The court rejected the claim that government officials should be above the law, stating in its final decision, “We see no persuasive justification in … case law or otherwise for [Rumsfeld’s] most sweeping argument, which would deprive civilian U.S. citizens of a civil judicial remedy for torture or even cold-blooded murder by federal officials and soldiers, at any level, in a war zone.”
“United States law provides a civil damages remedy for aliens who are tortured by their own governments. It would be startling and unprecedented to conclude that the United States would not provide such a remedy to its own citizens,” the decision said.
Civil liberties and human rights advocates say that while the court’s decision sends out an extremely hopeful message about accountability and justice, it is a sobering reminder of the detainees who are either still languishing in detention cells or have yet to receive any compensation for the months, or even years, of their lives that may have been stolen by U.S. interrogators.
“This is a good first step, but it would be even better if the administration authorised a full criminal investigation into overwhelming evidence of other instances of detention and torture,” Andrea Prasow, senior counsel in Human Rights Watch’s Terrorism and Counterterrorism Programme, told IPS.
In July, HRW published a detailed report on the mistreatment of detainees under the administration of former President George W. Bush, which the group said presented more than sufficient evidence to warrant criminal investigations into the possible complicity of top U.S. officials like Rumsfeld, former Vice President Dick Cheney and George Tenet, then-director of the CIA.