Former Detainees

This piece first aired in August, 2010, as part of the show, “State of Privilege”

Listen here.

Host Intro: Some six years after the controversial revelation that US prison guards were torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, stories of abuses against men and women detained in Iraq have largely fallen out of headlines. But while the outrage and media attention have faded away, many of the problems endure. Former Abu Ghraib detainees face a wide range of issues related to the trauma of their detention, including mental health problems, and the vast majority of the torturers still go un-prosecuted. Emily Crawford has the story.

EMILY CRAWFORD: Susan Burke is a lawyer who specializes in class action lawsuits, not typically human rights cases. However, since 2004 she has been involved in several lawsuits on behalf of former detainees who were held without evidence, tortured, and otherwise abused at Abu Ghraib Detention Facility in Baghdad. She represents her Iraqi clients as part of a team of lawyers with varying specialties who are spread out around the United States. Burke outlines the lawsuit:

SUSAN BURKE: Now, we’re civil lawyers, so we’re using the civil side, and that is basically lawsuits to obtain compensation for injuries. So on that front we have sued the 2 contractors companies, CACI and what was known as Titan but is now known as L-3.

EMILY CRAWFORD: CACI (or “Khaki” for short), one of the military contractors that had employees at Abu Ghraib, has released a statement saying “CACI has unequivocally renounced any abuse of detainees in Iraq and has cooperated fully in all government inquiries relating to detainee abuse.” However, the lawsuit against them continues today, and is a source of much contention in the DC District Court and the appeals court.

EMILY CRAWFORD: Burke and her team traveled to both Jordan and Turkey to interview former detainees as evidence of the abuses for which they are seeking compensation. It was in these interviews that Burke gained intimate knowledge of the specific types of abuse that the victims, mostly men, have faced.

SUSAN BURKE: Many, many, many people were very badly treated. What they did to these people physically is mind blowing. I mean, you know, for example they tied ropes around people’s penises and drag them back and forth across the cement floor. I mean it’s just inhuman! I mean, it really just proves the points made in the Milgram experiment and the Stanford experiment, is that if you put a group of humans in complete and utter control over others with no rules, no supervision, that it just devolves into a really awful situation.

EMILY CRAWFORD: Given the abuse that the prisoners underwent, it’s hardly surprising that many of them deal with post-traumatic health issues today. Daniel Heyman, a Philadelphia-area artist and professor of fine arts – and a friend of Burke’s – accompanied her on her trips to the Middle East in order to paint portraits of the former detainees for a series of paintings and prints. In this way, he also has served as a witness to their experiences, and tells of a particularly horrific incident:

SUSAN BURKE: A father and son were in prison and they really wanted to break the spirit of the son, so they asked the father to hit the son, and I’m not quite sure how they coerced him but he did it, and then they asked the son to hit his father and he wouldn’t do it, because in the islam religion it’s completely forbidden to hit a parent. So they then beat him and stripped him naked and made his father ride around on him, he was put on all fours and kinda put on a leash and led up and down the prison ward with his father riding on his back.

EMILY CRAWFORD: There are innumerable stories of abuse, both emotional and physical, but some stick out more than others. Heyman recalls a narrative from an interview that he found particularly troubling:

DANIEL HEYMAN: There was this guy who told about he and his family eating at home … And, the kids asked if they could go across the street … And then they heard this bomb go off, so he runs out into the street and this bomb had gone off and looks around and 2 of his sons have been killed, and one of them has been decapitated, i think a 9 year-old … in a few minutes the Americans come in and all the men in the area are arrested, and so he’s arrested face down on the ground, hands cuffed behind his back, next the body of his dead son … and then he  went off to Abu Ghraib, where he was for 134 days and was horribly abused and tortured, and I remember thinking the whole time “he never got to bury his 2 sons, he never got to talk to his wife or grieve, or help put the family back together.”

EMILY CRAWFORD: The lingering effects of an experience such as this can leave an indelible mark upon the victim, and often result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and other mental and emotional issues. Burke discusses the full range of psychological reactions that she has witnessed:

SUSAN BURKE: They’re not getting the kind of care and treatment that they need to recover, and instead what happens is essentially they just rely on family members. We see a range, for example there’s one young man who is essentially on 24-hr suicide watch from his family. They never leave him alone because he will kill himself. And then you have others who have made more of a recovery who are able to function normally.

EMILY CRAWFORD: Heyman also highlighted the enduring problems that face former detainees in Iraq, although he also says that some grassroots support systems are developing:

DANIEL HEYMAN: I know that there’s this one man, who runs a support group. I think he’s in Baghdad but he might have moved to Amman, other than that I don’t know. I know that alot of them really need medical care, and they can’t get it in Iraq. A lot have been rearrested, because they have previous prisoner lists, and different governments, either the Iraqi government or the American government has rearrested them because they were looking for terrorists and they go down the list of who’s living in the neighborhood and they get rearrested.

EMILY CRAWFORD: Burke emphasizes the fact that the American government has virtually ignored the issue in recent years, neither offering medical and psychological support for the victims, nor pursuing the prosecution of the parties responsible further than a handful of military court-martials at the time of the original scandal.

SUSAN BURKE: There’s nothing! I mean, think about this, there’s all this talk about the American disgrace and everything else, and yet nothing, nothing has been done for these people. The American govt. has not reached out, we tried to get the criminal investigative division of the military to investigate the torture further than the one or two that they had done – they wouldn’t do it! I mean, it is a national disgrace. So nothing has been done for these people in turns of medical care. zip.

EMILY CRAWFORD: Aside from the local efforts of torture victims and their families, however, the support available for these men and women is completely insufficient. Burke is still fighting for the detainees in the hopes that they will receive compensation from the military contractors, but none of the cases show promise of quick closure. One of the cases may even appear before the Supreme Court in the fall. Meanwhile, other military contracting companies similar to CACI and L-3 are still at large, according to Burke:

SUSAN BURKE: We have essentially created the military industrial complex.

EMILY CRAWFORD: Burke and Heyman both approach the situation from personally invested positions, but the narratives that they bear witness to also speak for themselves. These former detainees need medical and psychological attention after what they have been through, and they simply do not have access to it.

For War News Radio, I’m Emily Crawford


Leave a Reply